TORONTO - Unless the Maple Leafs can score at least once against Carey Price on his own front porch, they won’t push the playoff door open any wider.
If he starts Thursday night at the Bell Centre, Price could be the first Montreal Canadiens goalie to blank Toronto three times at home in one year since Upper and Lower Canada iced their first NHL teams in 1917. Montreal’s revenge on the Leafs for winning the 1967 Stanley Cup did involve three fat Forum zeroes, but those shutouts were split between Gump Worsley (two) and Rogie Vachon (one).
Lack of sleep could be Price’s biggest problem. The Canadiens play 24 hours after flying home from the end of a Western Canadian road trip. But that involved Price beating the Canucks in front of friends and family and he’s a top five performer in league wins (28) and shutouts (six). The two wins and 57 saves in the home games against Toronto improved his record to 7-5 against them with a .924 save percentage.
Twelve days ago, the Leafs couldn’t have made it any easier on Price, with just 27 shots in a 3-0 loss. They had 30 pucks against him back on Nov. 20, when Price foiled them 2-0.
“He has had a lot of teams’ numbers this year,” said centre Tyler Bozak, one of a few Leafs forwards in need of a goal. “We have to get traffic and bang home some rebounds.”
Toronto’s last visit to the Bell Centre did not include appearances by Colby Armstrong or Mike Brown. Both belligerent wingers were injured, but will be looking to get into Price’s kitchen if given the chance.
“No goalie likes traffic,” noted first-line winger Nikolai Kulemin after Wednesday’s MasterCard Centre practice. “That’s the key for us. We have to get in front of him and shoot more. We haven’t had our best games there.”
The Leafs have no hope of catching Montreal in the standings, but all 22 remaining games are vital for sustaining their scant playoff hopes. They won’t likely get a better chance to take down the Habs, especially if they want to somehow be alive to make Game 82 on April 9 at the ACC something meaningful.
“They’re coming back from the West Coast (0-2-1) and we’re going in probably feeling good about ourselves (2-0-1),” coach Ron Wilson said. “But it will probably be a low-scoring game. They aren’t a high-offence team and obviously we aren’t (both are averaging around 2.5 a game).
“We’ll need solid goaltending and it will probably be one of those 3-2, 2-1, 1-0, games. That’s what I’m counting on, even though we haven’t scored a goal in Montreal this year. We have to find a way to crack Carey.”
And if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The Leafs have a pretty decent stopper nowadays in James Reimer, who is pumped for his first game at the Bell Centre, a start usually reserved for hometown boy Jean-Sebastien Giguere. The latter is making a steady recovery from a groin injury, but even if he were 100%, Wilson would pencil in the rookie from Manitoba.
“I’m riding James,” Wilson said. “He appears to be able to play even when he’s sick (overcoming the Islanders and bad indigestion on Tuesday). He’s a young kid and wants to be in every game, and I think our team deserves to get that kind of goaltending.
“He hasn’t cracked. These are all tough games, low-scoring and tight and he has to make five or six big saves a night. He hasn’t made many mistakes. You minimize those, you give your team a chance to win.”
Price has far more credentials at this stage of his career than Reimer, so it’s a stretch to compare this to an old Johnny Bower-Jacques Plante duel, Mike Palmateer and Ken Dryden or even Curtis Joseph-Jose Theodore. But Reimer wants to have his name in the annals of this soon-to-be Hundred Year War.
“I know this rivalry goes back many, many years to a lot of battles, a lot of intensity and those are games that are fun to be part of,” Reimer said. “There is a little extra drive from everyone. It kind of feels like a playoff game. Win or lose, I’ll grow a lot as a goalie and I think our team will, too.”
A loss wouldn’t be devastating to the Leafs’ hopes, but this wraps up five Northeast Division games since Feb. 5 with a chance to be above .500 in that stretch. The Leafs have not had a winning record in the division since before the lockout and, as a result, have no post-season appearances. A win would pull them to 8-8-2 overall in the lodge after recent unexpected road wins in Boston and Buffalo.
But it all has to start with a goal.