MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens were leading 3-0 over the Florida Panthers when Vincent Trocheck got to a loose puck and started in on a breakaway. It was 28 seconds into the second period, and Trocheck had a clean sheet of ice underneath him, a perfect surface to settle the puck down and pick his spot. His head was up, his stick was cocked to shoot, and his opportunity to get the Panthers back into the game with just under 40 minutes remaining was as ripe as it gets.
The only thing standing between Trocheck and his eighth goal of his injury-plagued season was arguably the one goaltender in the NHL that could turn a breakaway into a benign scoring chance just by standing there.
The puck came off Trocheck’s stick at full velocity, a wrist shot from 27 feet out that was caught by a statuesque Carey Price. The Canadiens goaltender made it look like he was playing a routine dump-in from centre ice. Ho hum.
This is Price now. Cool bordering on nonchalant. Confident in his movement bordering on cocky in his positioning. His game has returned to form, his swagger apparent with every little push on the ice. And in this season, which was supposed to be about building towards a brighter future for the organization, there’s been no more crucial development than the $84-million man rediscovering all of that.
“He’s just dominant out there,” said Victor Mete after Price made 33 saves to help the Canadiens confidently dispatch the Panthers to the tune of 6-1 at the Bell Centre on Tuesday.
The 20-year-old watched this Price on TV many times. He saw him sweep the NHL Awards in the summer of 2015. But Mete didn’t see this Price a year ago when he was taking his first strides as an NHL defenceman on a porous Canadiens team that finished 28th in the standings.
“Last year was tough for everybody,” Mete said.
He’d have never said it was particularly tough for Price, but the numbers don’t lie. In 49 appearances, the former Vezina and Hart Trophy winner went 16-26-7 and posted a career-low .900 save percentage and a career-high 3.11 goals-against average. There were nights where Price was virtually unrecognizable — flopping around his crease, retreating towards the goal line, a shell of the goaltender who had established himself as the consensus best goaltender in the world over a five-year period.
But his play of late has turned those nights into distant memories.
After recording his 33rd win of this season on Tuesday, Price said he left those memories behind him right as time expired in the team’s final game in Toronto last April.
“It’s important to refocus in this game,” Price said. “I’ve always done a pretty good job of that. We all knew at the start of the season we would be better and we’ve gotten a better result this year.
“I’ve always just tried to stick with what works, and sometimes you go through funks — not only in just hockey but in general. So I knew if I just stuck with what works and what’s worked for me before, I would come out of it.”
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment of this season that Price came out of it. He had a decent pre-season, and though he posted strong numbers in October, in November he looked more like the guy from a season ago.
But few, if any of Price’s cohorts have been better since Dec. 1. Since that date Price has allowed two goals or fewer in 29 of his 43 appearances, posting a .926 save percentage that would be considerably higher if it wasn’t for a laugher of a game the Canadiens played in front of him in Anaheim earlier this month — when they gave up eight goals.
And on this night Price was otherworldly, like he has been in just about every other game he’s played down the stretch.
“He’s in the zone right now,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien.
The only shot to beat the 31-year-old who wears No. 31 on Tuesday was a second rebound opportunity for Frank Vatrano, which came after he turned away a tipped point-shot and made a diving save on Denis Malgin’s slap shot.
In the first period, the Canadiens got off to a sleepy start and Price stopped the first six shots of the game — three of them dangerous ones — like he was working his way through warmup. In the second, just 1:33 after closing the door on Trocheck’s breakaway chance, he slid the length of his crease and got his pad on a perfect one-timer from Evgenii Dadonov and covered the puck to ensure there would be no rebound.
In the third period, Price dove across his crease and gloved a Mike Hoffman power-play one-timer just a minute before Vatrano’s goal broke his shutout bid. And after Vatrano scored he just shut the game down.
“I’m really happy to be on his side,” said Canadiens teammate Tomas Tatar, who scored two goals and added an assist to breach his previous career high of 56 points recorded with the rival Detroit Red Wings in 2015. “[Playing against him] I was always just nervous to see how calm he is. That was freaking me out. That’s the nightmare for every player in the league — just to see how calm he is. I think he reads the play really well, he stands like he’s waiting for you to do a move, and he’s just hard to score against.”
That’s the Price that has helped this unheralded Canadiens team stay in the playoff race, with his latest performance allowing them to stay two points up on the Columbus Blue Jackets in the second wild-card position and one point back of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference.
“Overall, I think he’s been giving us such good hockey,” said Julien. “He’s giving our team a lot of confidence.”
Price has given the Canadiens what they need in Year 1 of his eight-year contract.