MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens went home for the summer after being eliminated in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a major "what if?" hanging over their heads.
What if star goaltender Carey Price wasn't injured in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers? What if Price were able to avoid Rangers forward Chris Kreider sliding at full speed toward the Canadiens crease instead of having Kreider collide into him, straining his knee when his leg slammed into the goal post behind him?
The Canadiens lost the series in six games, and even though Dustin Tokarski came in and performed extremely well under the circumstances, it was not the same as having one of the best goaltenders in the world behind them.
As the Montreal Canadiens prepare to face the New York Rangers for the first time since the 2014 Eastern Conference Final, goalie Carey Price and his teammates aren't focused on how Price's injury may have changed the course of that series. (Photo: Getty Images)
The answer to that question will never be known, and it won't become any clearer Saturday when Price will be in goal for the Canadiens game against the Rangers at Bell Centre (7 p.m. ET; CITY, TVA).
"The fact we lost Carey Price was a huge loss for us, but we're never going to know if it would have been different," Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said after practice Friday. "It's easy to speculate about the result, but we're never going to know. One thing we do know is [the Rangers are] a good hockey team, they work hard, they have a good structure and they're tough to play against."
When Price was asked if he'd circled this game on his calendar at the start of the season, he calmly responded, "Not even a little bit."
Does he circle any games on the calendar?
"No," he said, "just the next one."
It is perfectly normal for players to say a game like this is just like any other game, that what's in the past is in the past and nothing can change it. But when the team is led by a player with the demeanor of Price, it's a bit easier to believe the players when they say it, because they take their lead from him.
"We all know how we felt after losing in New York, but we're not going to be able to be back in that situation by winning this game," Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher said. "I think it's something that's over with, we have to learn from it, be better for it this year, but we can't be playing with vengeance in our minds."
Therrien and New York coach Alain Vigneault provided an interesting sideshow to the series between the Canadiens and Rangers last season, taking jabs at each other through the media even though they are good friends. Each of them said at the time that once the summer arrived, they would take the time to see each other and hash things out, something Therrien confirmed did in fact happen.
"It was very cordial," was all Therrien would say to describe the meeting.
The Canadiens and Rangers each enter this game playing great hockey.
Montreal sits atop the Eastern Conference standings with a 6-1-0 record and has not played since a 2-1 come-from-behind overtime win against the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday. The Rangers have won three straight games to bounce back from a 1-3-0 start, and are similarly rested with their last game coming Tuesday, a 4-3 overtime win against the New Jersey Devils.
For the Canadiens, the focus Saturday will be on maintaining the level of excellence they've established this season, but going about it a different way. Montreal has allowed the first goal in each of its past six games and has trailed after two periods four times this season, winning three of those four games. The Canadiens won three games they trailed after two periods all of last season, going 3-24-4 in that situation.
RANGERS VS. CANADIENS
Postseason foes MTL, NYR meet again
This is the first of three games between the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens, and the only one at Bell Centre. These teams met in the Eastern Conference Final of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, which the Rangers won in six games. GAME PREVIEW ›
On the one hand, it is a good sign the Canadiens have been able to eliminate late deficits. But on the other hand, falling behind on such a regular basis is not a good habit.
The look the Rangers will be seeing Saturday is also significantly different from the one they saw last spring in that the Canadiens have been riding two effective scoring lines. Montreal's top line of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Brendan Gallagher has been expected to carry the load offensively, but it's been the second line of Alex Galchenyuk, Tomas Plekanec and Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau that has had the most success in the early going.
It creates a matchup dilemma for Vigneault.
"When they're playing well," Gallagher said, "it just gives opposition coaches and players something to think about."
The Canadiens are well aware they will not win at a rate of six out of seven games all season long, but they desperately want to keep it going as long as possible. If they can do that Saturday against a team that knocked them out of the playoffs last spring, it would likely be an added bonus, even if no one is willing to admit it.
"I think this group is experienced enough to know that winning isn't easy; it comes at a price," Price said. "As soon as you start getting content is when you start sliding. We want to be an elite team in this League and we know what it's going to cost to be that."
The Canadiens might already be considered an elite team if they were able to reach the Stanley Cup Final last season, but they were missing their best player when it mattered most. As Therrien said, no one knows what would have happened if Price had remained healthy. But a few minutes after saying that, Therrien spoke about the importance of his goalie, and hearing him speak would be enough to make some people wonder once again.
"Carey gives us confidence as a team every game," Therrien said. "It's important to have confidence as a team, and Carey Price, the quality goaltender that he is, gives us confidence that we have a chance to win every game. That's a big plus."
What if, indeed.