Canadiens' Price takes another step towards necessary return to play

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price (31) blocks a shot. (John Locher/AP)

MONTREAL — This was Carey Price as we haven’t seen him since last May.

Granted, he had participated in a handful of practices before this one at the Bell Centre and looked pretty sharp before a non-COVID-related illness sidelined him once again and pushed back his seemingly never-ending rehabilitation from off-season knee surgery. But he didn’t look quite the same as he did in this one.

In this one, after the Canadiens took their annual photos to commemorate this season, Price was supposed to be sharing his net with Samuel Montembeault but didn’t appear to be particularly generous about it. He stayed in there for almost the entirety of the first drill — a small-area scrimmage between both blue lines — and did the bulk of the work for all the others over the next 50 minutes.

The 34-year-old was focused, intense and active. He looked like himself, like the guy Brendan Gallagher later described as “competitive.”

“He doesn’t like letting in any goals, really, but when he’s able to push across the crease and really challenge you, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a goalie be able to do something like that,” Gallagher said. “The way he can move side to side and seems square to the puck at all times, he’s never out of the net. And when he has that power and that push, he’s a tough guy to beat.”

Gallagher quipped he wasn’t able to get a puck past Price on this day and then said, “So, he’s ready to go.”

Then again, it doesn’t appear that Price will be back for Tuesday’s game in Montreal against the Ottawa Senators. When Martin St. Louis was asked when he might return — with his prolonged absence starting just weeks after the Canadiens lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2021 Stanley Cup Final, extending through the beginning of the season when he left for treatment for what he termed as long-standing issues with substance use and dragging all the way to this point — the coach said, “I have no clue.”

But St. Louis acknowledged what seemed patently obvious to Gallagher, Jake Allen and the rest of us after watching Price practise Monday. He didn’t deny that Price is getting closer.

If it’s a mystery to some as to why the organization should want Price to return at this point, or why Price should even be considering getting back into games with 13 contests remaining in a season that’s likely to finish with the Canadiens with the first- or second-best draft lottery odds in the league, St. Louis summed it up well.

“I know for Carey, I think it’s important to see where he’s at for himself and how he will take that into the summer,” he said. “For him to have some answers going into the summer I think is really important for his own individual thing.

“For me, if you get a small sample of Carey this year and some encouraging things for him — whether it’s his play or how he feels after his play — I think the Montreal Canadiens are going to be in a better place. It’s Carey Price.”

He was on this day, and it’s vital to know if he will be going forward.

Canadiens executives Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes — and St. Louis, who’ll likely be shedding the interim tag and coaching this team next year — need to know how Price looks and feels after he gets through what can’t possibly be simulated in a practice. It’s vital to glean those things over a sample of games as they continue to reset the roster and build towards the future.

But nothing could be more important than Price proving to himself that he can still play at the level he expects of himself. It’s why, despite telling media members at the end of January that he was uncertain he’d be able to ever play again, he hasn’t given up on this mission.

“I don’t think anyone would’ve blamed him if he packed in for the year,” Allen, the de facto starting goaltender in Price’s long absence, said. “He’s tried and tried and tried, but I knew he wasn’t going to pack it in. I knew he wanted to play. He’s reaffirmed to me that he wanted to play. He’s pushed the limits as much as he possibly could, and I think there’s probably a lot of people on the outside who thought he was done for the year. I knew he was going to come back.

“He’s going to play. Whether he plays five games or three, I don’t know, whatever it is I think it’s just that mindset behind it that he is a competitor. And if I was in his shoes, I would want to do the same thing. I wouldn’t want to go five months of sitting there (in the off-season) and wondering, ‘Do I still got it or what’s the deal here?’ This whole crazy season that we’ve had, he’s had some ups and downs and now he’s going to get a chance to show that he’ll still be the Carey (he’s always been). And obviously, if I was in those shoes, there’d be some rust. But if that was me, I’d want to prove to myself that I did all this work and it wasn’t going to be for nothing, that I was going to come back and prove to this organization that I’m still here. And I’m sure that’s probably the same way that he’s thinking.”

It seemed evident this has been and is Price’s mindset watching him stop shot after shot and watching him push himself to the limit in every drill — and even in the sprints that followed some of the drills — on Monday.

Now his knee must respond well to what was his first full practice in weeks. It must hold up the next few times he steps on the ice, and it must permit him to return to games and submit to the ultimate test.

That Price looks close to being prepared for that is a welcome sight for everyone with the Canadiens.

“You’re really happy for him as a teammate, as a friend, as a guy that’s made you look good for 10 years,” said Gallagher. “You’re happy to see him back there. You know how much it means to him to get back on the ice — even little steps like this to be back practising with the team will mean a lot to him.

“He’s getting closer. I don’t know when it’ll be, but he’s getting closer. And, as his teammates, you’re excited and you're happy for the guy.”

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