BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres defenceman Nathan Beaulieu was standing by the Montreal Canadiens dressing room following his team’s season-opening 3-2 shootout loss, eager to speak to his former teammates about his first game against them.
“It could’ve been ugly,” he said.
Beaulieu was referring to the outcome of the game and how drastically different it might have been had Canadiens goaltender Carey Price not offered up a world-class performance.
“It’s not fun playing against him at all,” said Beaulieu, who spent the better part of the last four seasons trying to help Price keep the puck out of his net before being traded to Buffalo this past summer.
It couldn’t have been fun for Sabres forwards Jacob Josefson, Jason Pominville and Sam Reinhart, who attempted to break the game in the shootout and were all thwarted by the goaltender who appeared a step ahead. It definitely wasn’t fun for their whole team as they clung to a 2-1 lead through the middle portion of the game and saw chance after chance to capture insurance turned aside with ritual calmness by Price.
The Sabres finished the night with 45 shots and an abundance of quality looks at goals. But there was Price interrupting several cross-crease passes. There he was devouring pucks directed at him without allowing a single rebound—impressively as the Canadiens found themselves down two men for 1:18 of the second period.
And in the third, with the Sabres holding all the momentum out of the gate, there Price was cutting off the angles on one-timers, diving in front of loose pucks and doing everything he could to keep the Canadiens within striking distance before teammate Phillip Danault tucked a wraparound through Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner to tie the game 2-2 with 11:59 to go in the frame.
“They played a really fast game and kinda caught us on our heels,” said Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty, who scored his team’s first goal by finishing a perfect passing play between linemates Brendan Gallagher and Jonathan Drouin. “Sometimes it felt like they had complete possession of the game.”
The Sabres had given up the first seven shots and Lehner stood his ground on all of them. But play quickly shifted to the other end of the ice and Pominville snuck his way in front of Price and shelved a backhand to open the scoring eight and a half minutes into the game.
It was 22 seconds into the second period that Pominville restored the Sabres lead by finishing off a sensational play by linemate Jack Eichel.
With the wind in their sails, in front of 19,070 fans who filled Key Bank Centre, the Sabres appeared nearly unstoppable.
“But oh man,” said Drouin, who scored the winner in the shootout with a cheeky backhand deke that was flicked off the back bar of the net behind a sprawled out Lehner. “[Price] is so calm. I’ve seen it when I’ve played against him [as a former member of the Tampa Bay Lightning]; you know how he is. It’s so nice to have that. You know he’s back there and not panicking at all. He’s making the saves, and not many rebounds come out of that goalie. He was huge for us tonight.”
It was the first significant test for Price after signing a contract extension this past summer that will pay him $84 million over the next eight seasons that follow this one. He called the game, “a fun one to be a part of as a goaltender.”
Not all of his contemporaries would feel the same way about having to face as much rubber, but Price said the volume of shots gave him a good feel to allow him to build towards showing his best self as the season progresses.
Canadiens coach Claude Julien would’ve liked for the margin of error to have been a bit wider.
“I felt they dominated us along the boards a little more than I’d like to see,” said Julien in French. “We have to be a bit better in that area.
“We’re going to have some things to work on.”
It will take time. But time is the luxury the consensus best goaltender in the world offers the Canadiens. He is the ultimate equalizer, even in a game where his teammates create at the other end of the ice and manage upwards of 40 shots of their own—as they did on Thursday.
“There’s no doubt he was our key player,” said Julien.
It’s no secret Price will have to be exactly that for the Canadiens to end up on the winning side of the board more often than not this season.