Domi scored his 20th goal of the season 1:21 into the game, and before the night was over he skated 19:13, had three shots on net and won 50 per cent of his faceoffs.
Paul Byron, who had missed six games with a left-arm injury, scored his 11th goal of the season to give the Canadiens a 2-0 lead in the 18th minute of the first period. Teammate Tomas Tatar capitalized on a beautiful pass from Jordie Benn to score the game-winner with just under seven minutes remaining in the third period and he was named the third star thereafter. And Nate Thompson, who was skating in Phillip Danault’s place next to Tatar and Brendan Gallagher, greeted the media wearing the team-awarded, player-of-the-game, Game-of-Thrones-style cape for winning 67 per cent of his faceoffs and displaying an impressive effort in hounding the puck all over the ice.
And Price, who made 31 saves to match his jersey number, stood up and deflected praise when it was finally his turn to speak.
“I thought the rest of our guys were doing a good job of reading [plays]…” he said.
Without him they’d have been staring down the barrel of a fifth straight loss. Instead they gained two more points of breathing room on the charging Carolina Hurricanes and leapt over the Blue Jackets and into the first wild-card position in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The Canadiens came into the game with their confidence shaken by three consecutive regulation losses to the likes of the Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers. They needed someone to lead them out of their funk and Price was up to the task.
“We had a tough road trip, we had some tough games,” said Tatar. “I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t easy. We kind of knew we had to battle really hard to win this game, and you could see we didn’t have as much confidence [to start] as in our previous home games.”
But Price’s was well intact from the second the puck dropped. The game was barely a minute old when he made the point-blank stop on Blue Jackets defenceman David Savard that led to the break Domi took down the ice to open the scoring. He then made huge saves on Anthony Duclair and Oliver Bjorkstrand in the fifth minute and came flying out of his net to the top of his crease to stymie a glorious scoring chance for Seth Jones.
“He got a lot of composite on that one,” said Price. “He definitely got all of it, but I feel like from there I should be making that save.”
There were so many he made in this game that most others wouldn’t have stopped. Three of them on Josh Anderson alone—including one on a shorthanded breakaway in the second period that forced him into a full split—were pivotal.
Earlier in the second, it was Anderson who beat Price with an unstoppable shot on a 2-on-1 break to narrow Montreal’s lead. And in the third period, on another 2-on-1 rush, he took a shot off Price’s pad to give Nick Foligno a rebound goal that tied the game.
But the Canadiens’ goaltender continued to turn aside quality chances, putting the team on his back and carrying them to a crucial win.
Price hadn’t been called upon to do that through a 6-2-2 start to the season for Montreal. In November, he struggled to be the difference for them. But since Dec. 1, he’s been otherworldly—going 16-9-1 and posting a .929 save percentage.
“He’s certainly picked up his game,” said Byron. “Everyone talks about the second half being on another level. The league tightens up, that’s when you really see how good teams are, how good players are, and he’s just taken his game to a new level. Every single night he gives us a chance to win. Every single night he’s making these highlight saves for us. We give up breakaways, 2-on-1s, and we’re able to play a little bit more aggressive because we know he’s going to make that save. He certainly works hard for us and he’s been incredible.”
Some of Price’s best stuff of the night came after Tatar scored his goal. There was the stop he made when Columbus’ leading goal scorer, Cam Atkinson, skated out of the corner and got a clean look from the slot. There was another where he pivoted and gloved a perfect one-timer from Zach Werenski. And he stoned Anderson with nine seconds left in the third period.
“That’s usually what you need to get out of something like what we were going through,” said Gallagher. “It seemed like we weren’t giving up a ton of shots but the ones we were giving up were prime, prime scoring chances. They were breakaways, 2-on-1s, chances from right in front, and he made some unbelievable saves. That’s an incredible performance from him.”
It was certainly one that deserved a bit more spotlight.