NEW YORK — It was awkward, really.
On Thursday night at the Bell Centre, with November under wraps, Carey Price was presented with the Molson Cup, which is awarded at the end of each month to the Montreal Canadiens player who earns the most three-star nominations in games.
Not that it was so strange to see Price given the honour. He’s won the trophy so many times over his 12 seasons and change that they should rename it the Carey Price Cup. It’s just that he was a few days removed from having closed out the month with a fourth straight loss, one in which he allowed five goals to the hapless New Jersey Devils to sink his save percentage to .883 and spike his goals-against average to 3.77 in 11 November appearances.
It’s no wonder Bell Centre master of ceremonies Michel Lacroix announced Price as the winner of the Molson Cup by citing the fact that early in the month of November the 32-year-old had become the first goaltender in the NHL to reach 10 starts on the season.
"Some month," Price joked following his 29-save performance in Montreal’s 2-1 win over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Friday.
Boy, it sure felt like he was leaving November in the dust with every save he made in this game.
Price started with a sprawling stick-save on Jacob Trouba early in the first period. As the night wore on he made a couple of 10-bellers on Mika Zibanejad, he shut the door on Artemi Panarin, made saves from in close look easy on two Jesper Fast shots, stretched out to stop three quality chances on Filip Chytil and he kicked aside Brady Skjei’s three point shots like they were nothing.
But Price’s best stop of the night? It came in the 12th minute of the second period with the scored tied at 1-1.
Zibanejad stripped Max Domi of the puck while the Rangers were killing a penalty and charged down the length of the ice on a 2-on-1. The righty hit the top of the left faceoff circle, faked pass and snapped a shot earmarked for the top-right corner of the net. That’s when Price lifted his glove up and pushed the puck out of harm’s way.
The Canadiens shut the game down after that. They pressed when they could but peeled off when it was advantage New York and buckled down in their own zone, keeping everything to the outside. In the third period, they registered eight of their 18 blocks in the game.
It was in retreat that Nick Suzuki picked off Ryan Lindgren’s pass to start the play that sent Nick Cousins and Nate Thompson in on the rush — a play that was finished by Thompson to give the Canadiens a 2-1 lead with 1:07 left.
In the room afterwards, Thompson and the rest of the Canadiens were very pleased with the outcome. It was just their second win in their last 11 games and a critical one earned against a Rangers team that had won six of their last nine — including one that saw them erase 4-0 and 5-3 deficits to beat the Canadiens on Nov. 23.
Price was in the net for that 6-5 loss, but he looked completely different in Friday’s game than he did in that one.
It took time for his game to come apart — Price started with a respectable .914 save percentage through 10 October games despite the Canadiens leaking quality scoring chances on the regular — and it took time for it to come back together. You could see it coming on Dec. 1 in Boston when Price made 31 saves in a 3-1 loss to the powerhouse Bruins.
At home against the New York Islanders two nights later, Price wasn’t tested often but he was challenged by some high-quality shots and he stopped 23 of 25 to help the Canadiens win 4-2.
But on Friday, you could definitively say Price made the difference.
"To put on a show like he did tonight — especially at times when we’re running around in our own zone — they’re finding the back door and Carey’s already over there," said Canadiens defenceman Ben Chiarot. "He’s fun to watch."
Price admitted several times in November that he felt he could make the difference but just didn’t manage to. It’s no secret he struggled and as the team deviated from its system and the chances piled up it just didn’t seem like he was being given a chance to find his best game.
"I thought that when he was going through some tough times, we didn’t help out at all," said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. "If anything, we exposed him and we needed to be better in front of him.
"We’re better in front of him (now) so now he’s got the confidence in the group in front of him and all he has to do is worry about his job. I think at one point he was trying hard to cover up for all the mistakes, and we all know that doesn’t help a goaltender."
The Canadiens are still making mistakes, just as every team in the NHL makes them. But the number of devastating mistakes have been fewer of late and they’ve been less magnified with every confidence-building save Price has mustered.
It’s probably helped that Price has only started three of Montreal’s last five games. That he’s gotten some rest after starting 22 of Montreal’s first 27 games can’t hurt.
"It’s always good to take a step back, or rest a bit, or get a good workload in in practice to kind of reset," Price said.
Obviously, that’s not all of it.
"As an athlete, you’re always trying to perform your best," he added. "And whether that’s because of rest, or it just happens to be (working) that night, or… (there’s) lots of variables also involved in this, so…"
So, it’s probably a combination of everything.
Whatever you want to pick as the main reason for Price climbing his way back towards the level of performance expected of him, it’s an essential development for this Canadiens team, which is currently without a top-four defenceman in Victor Mete and three top-nine forwards in Jonathan Drouin, Paul Byron and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. They needed him against the Rangers and they need him now more than ever.
"We know Pricey’s a big leader for us and he’s been working so hard for so many years," said Phillip Danault, who registered an assist on Brendan Gallagher’s game-opening goal in the 11th minute of the first period. "He’s saved our ass a couple times. Sorry for the word, but he did a lot of times and he was big for us tonight. Like I said, he’s been working hard and (the team’s November slide) wasn’t his fault. "
If Price keeps up this level of play through December, he might be able to lift the Canadiens out of these troubled waters. There’s no doubt if he keeps it up, he’ll also be lifting that Molson Cup again by month’s end.
But this time for the right reason.