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Canadiens try to stay course during final weeks of underwhelming season

Price injury, surgery for Weber most recent setbacks in series of disappointments

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- The first of two portraits of the 2017-18 Montreal Canadiens is mounted outside their Bell Centre dressing room. It's a photograph of 25 players and 22 others -- ownership, management, coaches and support staff -- that was snapped in October for marketing purposes and fan promotion.

The "real" picture will be taken a few weeks after the NHL Trade Deadline (Monday, 3 p.m. ET), featuring the roster that will take the ice in the season's final weeks. It seems likely that one or more of the players in October's photo won't be posing for the next portrait.

Late Thursday afternoon, coach Claude Julien stood near the large photo, in front of the 24 miniature Stanley Cup trophies showcased to represent the championships won by the Canadiens since 1916, and delivered the latest unsavory bulletin on a sour season.

Earlier in the day, the Canadiens announced the shutdown for the rest of the season of defenseman Shea Weber, who will have surgery to repair a torn tendon in his left foot. Julien didn't even get to that, in either French or English, before he declared that goaltender Carey Price was out until further notice because of a concussion sustained two nights earlier when he was struck in the head by a shot from Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere.

A few hours later, the Canadiens ended a six-game winless streak with a 3-1 victory against the New York Rangers, their opponent in the Eastern Conference First Round last season. There will be no rematch this season, with the Canadiens (23-29-8) and the Rangers (27-29-5) poised to be sellers between now and Monday.

The Rangers made their second trade of the week before leaving Montreal, sending forward Michael Grabner to the New Jersey Devils for a second-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft and a prospect in defenseman Yegor Rykov.

With emergency recall Charlie Lindgren on the bench, backup goalie Antti Niemi made 31 saves to earn a victory without his general manager in the building; Marc Bergevin was in New Jersey to watch the Devils play the Minnesota Wild, presumably not just for fun.

Video: Shea Weber to miss rest of season with torn tendon

Back in September, Julien said at the Canadiens' annual golf tournament that he saw a great deal to be excited about in his first full season back with Montreal, where he began his NHL coaching career in 2003.

But then came a gruesome 2-7-1 start. Price went down with a lower-body injury for 10 games in November; the Canadiens were 4-4-2 in his absence.

Even when healthy, this hasn't been a banner season for the cornerstone goaltender who is relied upon so heavily by an offensively challenged lineup that's ranked 29th in the NHL in goals scored with 152. Price is 15-22-6 with a 2.98 goals-against average and .904 save percentage, numbers far below his peak. On Tuesday, he played his 552nd NHL game, moving him into sole possession of second place on the Canadiens' all-time games played list for goalies. Price needs four to equal Jacques Plante for the top spot, but with his concussion, there's no guess when that might happen.

Weber, the anchor of a defense that changed dramatically during the offseason, was struck in the foot by a shot in the season's first game and soldiered into mid-November before sitting for six, returning for six, then being parked by the team on Dec. 19 and sent home from Vancouver for treatment. That didn't yield the desired results and on Thursday, having been sent to a specialist in Wisconsin, Weber was shut down for the season, with surgery planned in Green Bay.

"I don't want to sound like I'm complaining, because I'm not," Julien said. "It just seems that everything that could have gone wrong this year, has. From the start of the season, having a bit of a tough start and [Price] getting injured, Shea and everything. …

"But one thing I can tell you about this year is that I know in the future it's going to pay off because our guys will be stronger for it. They've gone through the battle of going through adversity. Hopefully, it's going to make us stronger in the long run. We've just got to stay the course right now. I don't want our guys putting their arms down and giving up. I want them to continue to compete every game and try to win every game, and that's how we're going to get better."

Video: The guys discuss the Bruins trade for Nick Holden

On Feb. 8, the Rangers took the bold step of preparing their fans for the pain that's ahead. In an open letter, team president Glen Sather and general manager Jeff Gorton explained that their strategy "…may mean we lose some familiar faces, guys we all care about and respect. While this is part of the game, it's never easy."

That process began this week, with defenseman Nick Holden being traded to the Boston Bruins on Tuesday and Grabner going to New Jersey on Thursday.

In a resigned Montreal, the latest news from Julien reinforced the notion that the Canadiens' final 22 games of 2017-18 are bound to be a painfully slow, injury-riddled processional. And the trophy case behind the coach's back will remain safely sealed, this spring marking 25 years since Montreal won its most recent Stanley Cup championship.

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