BROSSARD, Quebec -- It could have been the ultimate Eastern Conference showdown.
The Montreal Canadiens are hoping it still will be.
When the Canadiens host the Washington Capitals at Bell Centre on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; CSN-DC, RDS, CITYM), it will be the first game between the two Eastern powers and a potential preview of the Eastern Conference Final.
"That's probably going to be our toughest challenge of the season, in my opinion anyway," Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban said.
Except these Canadiens are already in the midst of their toughest challenge not only of the season, but perhaps of the past three seasons.
With goaltender Carey Price out a minimum of six weeks with a lower-body injury and forward Brendan Gallagher gone for a minimum of five more with two fractured fingers on his left hand, the Canadiens are missing two of their best players heading into a showdown with one of the hottest teams in the NHL.
The core group on the Canadiens has never had to deal with two significant, long-term injuries like this, and the Capitals might be the best opportunity for them to prove they will be able to overcome it.
"There's no sympathy from any teams when you're going through injuries; everybody goes through it, and the difference is how you handle it," Subban said. "The teams that handle going through adversity during the season well are usually the teams at the end of the season that are at the top of the standings or eventually go on to win championships or go on deep playoff runs.
"So for us, we're looking at it as an opportunity for us to continue to get better."
The idea that the Canadiens would be lost without Price is one his teammates have expressed frustration with this season, and one they have done a good job of proving to be false so far.
"I think guys in the room are annoyed that they keep saying it's all Carey, Carey. Obviously, he's the best goalie in the world, and I don't think we have to apologize for him being on our team," forward Devante Smith-Pelly said. "But at the same time, we believe in the players on the ice as well and we believe that we're one of the better teams."
The Canadiens are 7-2-3 in the 12 games Price was not available because of his lower-body injury.
Montreal is second in the League in goals scored per game (3.42), fourth in power-play efficiency (23.9 percent), tied for fifth in shots on goal per game (30.9), tied for eighth in shots against per game (28.7) and sixth in 5-on-5 shot attempts percentage (52.22 percent), all categories that have nothing to do with who is playing in goal.
The man who will be, 25-year-old rookie Mike Condon, is trying to handle his sudden importance with a level head. But this will be his first regular-season game against the Capitals after facing them once in the preseason, and Condon admits he is eager to see Washington captain Alex Ovechkin coming at him.
"Preseason games are different than regular-season games; it's going to be fun to see an Alex Ovechkin one-timer in a real game," Condon said. "So I'm looking forward to it."
The showdown in goal is probably what would have made this matchup so compelling if Price weren't injured, but Condon is just as excited to face Braden Holtby as he is to see Ovechkin for the first time.
"You give the Capitals a couple of goals and they're going to be hard to beat," Condon said. "They have a lot of offensive firepower. We saw it in the preseason, so I got a little taste there, and Braden Holtby's a top-10 goalie in this league. It's going to be a challenge, but it's going to be fun. You want to play against the best."
In fact, all of Condon's teammates also want to play against the best. They want to prove that losing Price and Gallagher will not derail what has been a tremendous start to the season, and that they can hold the fort long enough for them to come back without losing much ground in the Eastern Conference standings.
Since the extent of Price's injury was announced Monday, this game will be the best opportunity for the Canadiens to do that.
"This is a great team that is playing very well," coach Michel Therrien said. "The adversity we're facing as a team and the character of our players shows that we want to be considered winners.
"So [Thursday] is a big opportunity for everyone."