Goaltenders Carey Price and Dustin Tokarski were alone in a crowd Tuesday night, peeling off their equipment as the media scrummed a few skaters at the far end of their Bell Centre dressing room.
“Maybe time for a bit of carbo-loading,” Price said, happy but fatigued after having just turned aside 36 Nashville shots in the Canadiens’ 2-1 win over the visiting Predators.
“Barley-loading!” Tokarski brightly corrected his stablemate.
Know this about the Habs’ backup goaltender: he has a great sense of humour — even if he might not have been kidding about 341 ml, give or take, of Molson’s finest.
On Sunday, Tokarski was the mild butt of his teammates’ joke when he skated alone onto Bell Centre ice for the annual fan practice, every other player stopping short in the corridor leading to the ice. At least the goalie they call Ticker didn’t get halfway around the rink, as others have done in the past when similarly duped.
And as he, too, filled his equipment bags Tuesday, Tokarski had an explanation for his momentum-gathering expression “dece,” urban slang for “decent” that’s not often been heard previously, if ever, in the Canadiens room.
“I’ve been saying it forever,” he said. “Maybe two or three years now.”
Did Tokarski know that dece was catching on with fans, the sort-of word now increasingly a hashtag on the Twitter social-media platform, and that he was modestly famous for it?
“I’ll take it any way I can get it!” Tokarski said, beaming, as he dragged his two duffel bags out of the room and into the five-day all-star break.
Indeed, it’s a very dece Canadiens team that arrived at this welcome pause in the schedule, a record of 29-13-3 parking them nicely in fourth place in the Eastern Conference heading into Wednesday’s final games before the league shuts down to showcase its greatest stars.
(Well, that’s subject to a little debate, isn’t it, given some of those who won’t be there. See: Pacioretty, Max; and Subban, P.K.)
After 45 games last season, the Habs were 25-15-5, having scored eight fewer goals — 115 to this season’s 123 — while surrendering the same 106.
It was grim going at the Bell Centre for a good long time Tuesday, however, the Canadiens seemingly ready to challenge their franchise low-water mark of just 12 shots on goal for a game, achieved twice.
Some fans watching at home were barking at Sportsnet, ridiculing the network for not having updated the Canadiens side of the shot clock midway through the game. The sad reality was, the Habs did indeed have just four shots to the Predators’ 26 when ex-Montreal forward Mike Ribeiro put the visitors on the board 12:10 into the second period.
But the Canadiens stirred to life later in that frame and into the third, Alex Galchenyuk tying the game 2:02 into the final period with a man advantage.
The power-play, once as bleedin’ demised as Monty Python’s Norwegian blue parrot, struck again in overtime, Subban rifling a shot past Predators goalie Carter Hutton.
Not so long ago a punch line — and we’re not talking about Elmer, Rocket and Toe — the Canadiens power play has been on fire the past four games, going 7-for-18.
With a brutal success rate of 13 or so per cent just a week ago, ranking it 28th in the NHL, the Habs power play is now 21st, at 17 per cent. Small steps are making, as Price says, “a big difference.”
“It’s won us a couple of games lately,” Price said of the power play. “We have a lot of talent on the team. Whoever gets thrown out there, we just need to be confident with the puck and make sure our compete level is higher than the penalty kill. We have the skill to get the job done and tonight we showed it again.”
The Habs and their fans celebrated an unlikely win against the Predators, the home team hanging in this one very largely because of Price’s standard heroics until the end.
Nashville did not go quietly into the night. Coach Peter Laviolette tore a strip off the officials as he shuffled across the ice toward his team’s dressing room, incensed with the overtime penalty, while Ribeiro would charge moments later that the referees “stole” the game from the Predators.
Across the rink, meanwhile, the Canadiens were a mostly relieved group, less than satisfied with the effort but happy to put the two points in the bank.
“I love winning, winning’s the best thing. It’s a lot better than losing, that’s all I’ve gotta say about that,” Price told reporters with a laugh. “I don’t care what it looks like. As long as it’s a W, I don’t care.”
At the far end of the room, Subban was dancing for a camera, singing a little; in short, he was being himself. Price paused in mid-sentence, then considered his few Subban-free days ahead at the All-Star Game in Columbus.
“I’m going to miss him dearly,” Price joked.
Subban, and the rest of the Canadiens, realize how much the team depends on their goalie to be not merely an all-star, but all-universe on many nights.
But clearly, this team can’t afford to be about one player as it turns the corner into the stretch run toward the playoffs.
“There’s always going to be a story about our team, but at the end of the day we’re one of the top teams in the league,” Subban pointed out.
“I’m sure (Price) will tell you this — it doesn’t take one player to be a top team in the league. We need 22 guys. I wouldn’t want all the pressure of being the guy who’s supposed to take our team to the Stanley Cup. Watch the playoffs every year — it’s not about one or two players, it’s about 22 guys.
“(Price) will be the first one to tell you that. I’ve known him a long time. He just wants to do his job and that’s all we ask of him.”
The Canadiens would be well-served if Price could put his deflection skills to use in the offensive end of the rink.
“More often than not there’s always guys making contributions,” he said. “We’re not going to play perfect every game, every team is competitive in this league, we understand that.
“As long as we can rope-a-dope a little bit when we’re not playing well, stay in the game, at least we give ourselves the opportunity to get that big goal and grab some momentum. We’ve been able to do that so far this year.
“We’ve got to be happy with the way the season’s gone so far,” Price said. “We can’t be content, we’ve got to keep pushing forward. I’m sure other teams are going to keep improving, we’ve got to do the same thing.
“The second part of the season is where things start getting difficult. We’ve got to make sure we’re managing our rest, practising well and taking good habits into the playoffs.”
The all-star break gives the Canadiens time to head for the hills — sand dunes, many of them, beaches and sun and surf. The only ice they should see for the next few days will be cube-shaped and bobbing in their tumblers.
Price and forward Jiri Sekac, however, head for Columbus and this weekend’s NHL All-Star Game, 60 minutes of window-dressing for a marching-band parade of related corporate/fan/promotional events.
This will be Price’s fourth such game, having played in Montreal in 2009, Raleigh in 2011 and Ottawa in 2012. Sekac goes for the first time, one of a half-dozen rookies who will take part in Saturday’s skills competition.
Price and his wife, Angela, will fly to Columbus on Thursday, to be joined by one of Angela’s bridesmaids and her husband, coming in from Cleveland.
The Canadiens return to practice in Brossard on Monday at 2 p.m., the Dallas Stars visiting the Bell Centre on Tuesday.
Price didn’t precisely know his return plans from Columbus, but you could hear the gears spinning as he wondered whether a late arrival back in Montreal on Monday would get him out of afternoon practice.
(Photo by John Mahoney/Montreal Gazette)