The news from Vancouver was delivered like a swift kick in the pills to Montreal Canadiens fans on Monday. Sudden, shocking, and certainly painful.
No. 1 defenceman Shea Weber is being “shut down for a bit,” according to head coach Claude Julien.
You can understand how the team’s supporters were stung by this. It stands to reason Weber’s absence will only serve to help turn this road trip—through Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Florida—into a graveyard for the Canadiens’ playoff hopes.
The boys in bleu, blanc et rouge are seven points out of the second wild-card position in the Eastern Conference and two points back of the Atlantic Division’s third-placed Boston Bruins, who have three games in hand.
Weber is on his way back to Montreal to have the injury near one of his feet evaluated by team doctors and is out for an undetermined period of time. There isn’t a single player on the blue line who can adequately fill his role.
No one else is being called up from Montreal’s minor league affiliate in Laval for the moment — not that anyone down there can do much to account for his loss anyway.
And according to Julien, Weber could be out awhile.
“This is the kind of injury he can’t keep playing on,” he said. “We’ll continue to manage his situation over the coming days and coming weeks.”
The optimist might find a silver lining in the way the Canadiens performed in Weber’s recent two-week absence with the same injury when they won four of six games without him.
But the truth is Canadiens goaltender Carey Price managed a superhuman save percentage north of .960 in those four wins, and one of them came against the 30th-place Buffalo Sabres, another was against a reeling Ottawa Senators team that had lost six consecutive games, and one more against the 26th-place Detroit Red Wings.
Maybe the Canadiens can inspire faint hope on Tuesday with a resilient performance against a Canucks team that’s missing top centre Bo Horvat and top scorer Brock Boeser.
But how will they fare against Calgary, who came into Montreal on the second leg of a back-to-back just over a week ago and beat their rested group—which included Weber—in overtime? How will they do against an Oilers team that crushed them 6-2 (with Weber) two Saturdays ago? And what happens if they have to go into back-to-back games against the Hurricanes and league-leading Lightning next week without Weber available?
The odds already weren’t in Montreal’s favour to start this road trip, and there’s no denying Monday’s news made them that much weaker.
Not that Julien is throwing in the towel. Coming off a disappointing 3-0 loss to the Senators in the NHL 100 Classic this past Saturday, he mixed up his lines at practice on Monday by placing Max Pacioretty with Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron, moving Alex Galchenyuk down to play with Phillip Danault and Andrew Shaw and rotating Jacob de la Rose into Byron Froese’s spot on the fourth line.
Maybe that will help generate some much needed offence at even strength.
But moving seventh defenceman Joe Morrow into Weber’s spot next to Jordie Benn, where he played two weeks ago, isn’t likely to help at either end of the ice. There’s only so much Jakub Jerabek and David Schlemko can do. And Victor Mete’s off with Canada at the world junior championship.
Jeff Petry, who partners with Karl Alzner, will likely take on the bulk of Weber’s role—as he did in his recent absence—by playing upwards of 30 minutes per game. How long he can sustain a high level of play while being taxed as such is anybody’s guess.
It’s going to take a herculean effort from everyone on the Canadiens to replace Weber.
“We have to do it as a team,” said Julien. “We need to look at each other and acknowledge that we can play better and we have to play better, and if we can get a more consistent effort it’ll make a huge difference.”
Perhaps it will.
But the week is off to a bad start for the Canadiens before they’ve even played a game, and that’s a tough reality for their fans to reckon with at this stage of what’s already been a disappointing season.