MONTREAL—Let’s save the hyperbolic proclamations for when Carey Price has strung a number of wins together and pushed the Montreal Canadiens that much closer to a playoff spot. One great game—a 3-0, 36-save shutout over the 29th-place Buffalo Sabres, who were playing for the second time in 24 hours—isn’t exactly a large enough sample to reasonably suggest he’s back on top of the goaltending world.
But, we have no problem saying Price’s first-star performance on Saturday night—in his first game after a lower-body injury kept him out of Montreal’s lineup for three weeks—was one gigantic step in the right direction.
It’s not so much that Price made 36 saves; it’s how he made most of them.
When he’s on his game, the puck typically hits him square in the chest. He may as well have had a dent in the Canadiens’ logo after this game.
“When you watch him play, that’s the Carey Price that we’ve seen here,” said Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher. “I’ve been in the league since he’s been in the league, and it’s the same Carey Price night after night. I think you just look at how composed he is, how he never really looks panicky at any time, [how] he’s always square to the puck.”
And when Price wasn’t in perfect position to make a save, he battled to make the ones that get the fans out of their seats.
Price made more than a couple of those against Jack Eichel. Buffalo’s most talented forward fired eight shots on net and set up several quality looks for his linemates Evander Kane and Jason Pominville.
Price made two fantastic saves on Kyle Okposo, as well.
But none were better than the two Price made on Johan Larsson, while the Canadiens were clinging to a 1-0 lead in the second period. Just over six minutes into the frame Larsson found himself all alone with the puck and was stymied by Price’s left pad, and then the rebound came right back to him and it was déjà vu.
It was impressive.
The thing is, we haven’t seen this type of performance from Price since the first game of the season, which ended as a 3-2 shootout win for the Canadiens in Buffalo. And when we last saw him, after he injured himself in warmups on Nov. 2 in Minnesota, he was unrecognizable—flopping around his crease like a fish out water, unsure of his positioning, and struggling considerably to track the puck.
There were two instances on Saturday, when Price overcommitted to a shot or slid a little further than he should have.
Most reasonable people wouldn’t expect perfection from anyone after a three-week absence, and they certainly wouldn’t expect it from a guy who had gathered only three wins in his first 11 starts and posted the worst statistics of any starting goaltender in the NHL in the process.
But some Canadiens fans—like any other passionate sports fans—can be unreasonable. They showed it when they mock-cheered Price on home ice, while his team was in the process of losing 4-0 to the Los Angeles Kings on Dec. 28.
“I think this city, this town, expects to win and it doesn’t matter who you are; they hold you accountable to that standard,” said Paul Byron, who scored a shorthanded goal 8:27 into the third period and was asked afterwards about the polarity of the fans, who on this night chanted Price’s name before, during and after the game.
“Any time you put on that logo, that jersey, you know that there’s a team that’s won 24 cups before you. Every night our team knows the fans expect our team to win hockey games,” Byron added.
And every night, Price is expected to be the difference. Especially on a team that currently ranks 29th in the league in the goals for category; one that couldn’t find the back of an empty net for the final five minutes of Saturday’s hockey game.
Price has proven throughout his career that he can be exactly that. It’s the reason he was signed by the Canadiens in July to an eight-year, $84 million contract extension that kicks in at the beginning of next season.
But on too many nights this season, Price hasn’t been up to the challenge.
The good news is, Saturday night wasn’t one of them.
“The way he plays, his style, it’s just his composure,” said Gallagher, about what can make Price intimidating to face. “When he’s doing that for us, obviously it’s frustrating for the opposing team.”
If Price can stand up to the task physically—it’s a big question at this point, given his recent injury history of missing time in five of the last six seasons and for as many as 70 games in 2015-16—he gives the Canadiens hope they wouldn’t otherwise have.
It appeared to be all but lost with the way Price started this season—and with the uncertainty surrounding when he might return from his latest injury. But Saturday’s game could be the start of something different.
“I was well-prepared for this game,” said Price, who admitted he felt good right from the start of it. “Now it’s on to the next one.”