BROSSARD, Que.—The guessing game is over.
Now the question is, which Price are we going to see? Will it be the one who built up a reputation over the past five seasons as the consensus best goaltender in the world, or will it be the one who put up the worst numbers of any starter with at least 10 games under their belt this season?
The 8-12-3 Canadiens need the Price they expect to see—the guy who they signed to an eight-year, $84 million contract extension this past summer—and can’t settle for anything in between. If he at all resembles the man who collected just three wins in 11 starts and posted a ghastly save percentage of .877 and a nightmarish 3.77 goals-against average, they’re in even bigger trouble than they already appear to be.
The team has lost five consecutive games and could be as many as six points out of a playoff spot by the time they wake up on Saturday morning. They’re getting set to play seven of their next eight games at home and four of their next five against divisional rivals. It’s fair to say they need a major boost.
“Just having his calming presence back there will make a difference” said Canadiens defenceman Jordie Benn after Friday’s practice. “He’s as good as any of us at moving the puck. He saves us from having to go back and get it half the time.”
Price’s ability to do that is critical, but him stopping and smothering pucks is what’s of utmost importance. All the better if he can do it without sliding around his crease with as little control as he displayed through the first few weeks of the season.
“Over the time he was injured, Carey did not stop working,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “When I say that, [I mean] he had treatment, he watched video with [goaltending coach] Stephane [Waite], and he kept working to improve his game for when he came back.”
Price also discarded the pads he was using up until the moment of his injury and has been wearing a new pair in practice over the past week.
He went back to an old pair of skates, too.
“It’s just something you’re familiar with,” Price said of the change. “Technically, I think it gives me more of an advantage.”
Whatever works, right?
One of the other things that might help Price regain form is having a bit of a different look to what’s been a beleaguered defence unit since the season started.
David Schlemko, who suffered a hand injury on the first day of training camp, is finally ready to start playing games again. He’ll dress for the AHL’s Laval Rocket on Friday, as part of a brief conditioning stint, and he’ll probably be ready to go for Monday’s Canadiens game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Jakub Jerabek came up from Laval to play his first NHL game in Nashville this past Wednesday and performed admirably. He’s a sound decision-maker and a capable puck mover who can chip in with some offence, and his addition brings a new element to the team’s back end.
And Shea Weber, who missed the past two games with a lower-body injury, is nearing a return. Julien said he could play Saturday after receiving treatment on Friday.
“(Lindgren) played great,” said Price. “It’s not an easy position. It was good to see his enthusiasm, he was having a lot of fun.”
Julien said one of the reasons Lindgren went down was because Niemi could be lost on waivers. We suspect the concern over losing Niemi to that process has more to do with making sure Price doesn’t suffer a setback over the next coming days than it does with anything else.
The nature of Price’s injury—coupled with his recent injury history—requires Montreal to proceed with as much caution as possible.
“We can recall Charlie at any point,” said Julien.
He just might want to do that as soon as Price needs rest for a game. With backup Al Montoya sidelined by a concussion for an indeterminate amount of time, Lindgren unquestionably gives them a better chance to win than Niemi.
It can be argued Lindgren does that regardless of Montoya’s health, considering he’s put up better numbers than any other Canadiens goaltender this season.
Price getting up to Lindgren’s level—and exceeding it—gives this team the best chance of getting back into the thick of the playoff race.
“We know what he’s done in the past,” said Julien. “We’re excited to see him come back.”
The Canadiens will be even more thrilled if Price can immediately offer his best.