By Allan Muir
He appeared like the answer to thousands, maybe millions, of prayers sent to the heavens from La Belle Province.
There was Carey Price, in full pads, moving gracefully from post to post and stopping shots from the slot with ease.
Was it possible that he might actually be on the verge of rising from his sick bed to come to the aid of the Canadiens when they need him most?
Not quite. Montreal's all-world goalie strapped on the gear before this morning's practice as part of his rehabilitation after suffering a knee injury in a Game 1 collision with Rangers forward Chris Kreider. As promising as it looked, this was simply a step toward recovery, not a miracle in the making.
Disappointing, for sure. There's no telling what kind of emotional boost Price would provide his team if he stepped between the pipes in Game 5, especially on a night where Montreal faces elimination in the Eastern Conference finals.
But as bad as things look for a team that is trailing 3-1, there is still hope ... even without the heroic return of Price. Because this series still doesn't have the feel of one that's going to be finished in five.
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It's not like the Habs have been outclassed to this point. They've generated their share of chances against Henrik Lundqvist. They were an Alex Galchenyuk crossbar away from coming home deadlocked at two, despite the fact that they were performing at a level well below what they're capable.
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And goaltending hasn't been an issue, thanks to the solid if unspectacular play of third-stringer Dustin Tokarski.
No, it's their execution and emotion that have been subpar.
Montreal has yet to play a really solid game in this series. The Canadiens have neither played with the intensity that they had in their series with the Bruins, nor shown the creative authority that allowed them to enter the offensive zone at will against the Lightning.
Give credit to New York. The Rangers have frustrated Montreal, especially with their ability to take away the middle of the ice. That's forced the Canadiens to dump pucks along the boards instead of exiting their own zone with possession, in the process holstering the Habs' primary weapon: speed through the neutral zone.
But at the same time, it's not going to take a miracle to beat New York. Just look at Game 4: the Rangers made way too many mistakes with and without the puck, and took far too many penalties. The Blueshirts tried to give it away, but Montreal failed to take advantage of the opportunities.
It's hard to believe the Canadiens could do any worse in Game 5. Handed nearly 15 minutes minutes of power play time, the Habs outshot the Rangers by a margin of just 8-4.
Montreal won the Boston series with its power play, scoring seven times. The same team has scored just once with the man advantage against New York -- and that was negated by Carl Hagelin's shortie in Game 4.
Part of the problem has been that coach Michel Therrien's has insisted on giving Thomas Vanek so much prime ice time. I've advocated giving the big deadline acquisition the time to work out of his slump, but when he's getting 7:01 of power play time and Lars Eller is getting 12 seconds, you have to wonder if Therrien is failing his team by overlooking an asset and not making adjustments to address a struggling unit.
And then there's defenseman P.K. Subban. He's fired 16 shots through the first four games, but has only one goal to show for it. And he hasn't looked nearly as dangerous as he did against the Bruins. There's some thought that he might be nursing a nagging injury -- his skating stride looked awkward at times on Sunday -- but he's not getting much breathing room from the Rangers, either. If he can create some space for himself with his legs, or better yet his reads, he can be a difference maker.
And really, that's all the Habs need tonight. A quicker step. More diligent puck pursuit. Better execution. And more net presence in front of Lundqvist to make his life a little more difficult and to make the most of the chances they create.
The opportunity is there, just like it was in Game 4. It won't take a miracle to grab it.
The Rangers and Canadiens meet in Game 5 tonight at 8 p.m. in Montreal (NBCSN, CBC, RDS).