MONTREAL—Carey Price was up and down and up and down, he was at one point spinning in his crease and at another zipping across it as the Minnesota Wild banked passes through the slot like they were playing a game of pinball.
With just a few minutes left in this 2-0 loss for his Montreal Canadiens, Price was put through his biggest test of the night—after having already stopped 24 shots and contorted himself to prepare to stop the other 36 pucks the Wild either had blocked or missed with—when Minnesota got a 56-second 5-on-3 advantage after Jeff Petry joined Jordan Harris in the penalty box.
Price flashed to the top of his crease and made a Jared Spurgeon one-timer from the top of the faceoff circle hit him in the chest and appear like an easy save. Seconds later, he popped out aggressively and blocked a one-timer for Mats Zuccarello. And he finished the sequence with a toe-save on Wild leading scorer Kirill Kaprizov.
Time was expiring when Price was forced to make a hard lateral push to stop Joel Eriksson-Ek’s 2-on-1 chance, and he succeeded.
On the whole, we thought he played well and appeared very much—with the exception of a couple of sequences, like the one that ended with Matthew Boldy’s between-the-legs goal to give the Wild the insurance they needed—like the Carey Price we’ve known since he arrived with the Canadiens as a fresh-faced 20-year-old in 2007.
Whether or not he felt the same is the big question.
From a conditioning standpoint, Price said he’s progressing well.
“Game shape’s a real thing,” he said afterwards. “But I feel like I’ve managed myself pretty well in my time off to prepare for this. There’s definitely times where you feel maybe a little bit winded, but you feel like that anyway.”
He didn’t say much about how his knee held up to pushing through all the movements that led to several setbacks between October and now.
As Price explained on Friday, after returning to his crease for the first time in 282 days, the nature of his position, coupled with his age and injury history, turned a routine two-month recovery from off-season surgery into one that dragged, and dragged, and dragged.
What Price didn’t say then—or even after Tuesday’s game—was just how much he might be using the limited time he has between now and the end of this season to see if his knee can withstand the daily pressure he’ll apply to it over a sustained period.
That information is far more pertinent. Because as everyone wonders about what Price’s future holds with the Canadiens, the real question is: What does the future hold for his career?
He talked this past January about being unsure he could resume it. And then 30 hours before Tuesday’s game, Price said, “I just want to be able to finish playing at an acceptable level.”
“I don’t know how long that is,” he continued, “but, at the end of the day, I want to be able to say that I left the game playing well and not being a burden.”
Ideally, that would be four years from now, when Price’s eight-year, $84-million contract is set to expire.
But he’s just four months away from his 35th birthday, he’s played through countless injuries and been through too many surgeries, and it’s anything but a given he’d attempt to go through another experience like the one he had this season.
We can’t see Price subjecting himself to something similar to what’s happened to Paul Byron.
The 32-year-old winger missed the first half of this campaign to recover from hip surgery. He had been playing for two years through excruciating pain that left him unable to walk the stairs in his home after games, and he was unsure he’d be able to play at the level expected of him upon his return on Jan. 30.
Byron then made it through nine games—and a lightened practice schedule to help him recuperate and get maintenance on his hip—before suffering an upper-body injury that knocked him out of four games.
He returned on Mar. 9 and appeared in 17 of the next 20 Canadiens games.
Then, on Tuesday, Byron left the game against the Wild after a shift late in the first period. He did not return, and Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis later confirmed he had been playing through a nagging lower-body injury for weeks.
“It’s hard,” said St. Louis. “I think he fights every day to keep playing this year because he wants to be with the team. He just has an injury that’s been bugging him for a while and he’s trying to fight through it. He’s a tough player, he’s a great player, and it’s hard not having him at 100 per cent.”
Price certainly empathizes.
“Definitely feel for him,” he said. “He’s a real competitor. He’s one of the most competitive people I think I’ve ever met, and he’s got that fire in him.”
Clearly, Price does, too. If he didn’t still have it, he’d have quit on this season long ago.
But games like the one Price played on Tuesday are going to reveal to him just how much more he wants or needs to feed that internal flame.
No amount of practice was going to give him certainty.
“There’s nothing that can replicate reps like this,” Price said.
Those reps are just as vital to test his knee as they are to test his will. They will form the basis of his self-evaluation when the off-season begins to unravel just five games from now.
Price will need to decide if he wants to continue to submit to a much more rigorous game-day routine than the one he enjoyed for so many years before the injuries piled up.
“It’s longer,” he said. “I can’t show up to the rink and jump in the hot tub anymore, and then go on the ice.”
As Price noted, the trainers and the strength and conditioning coaches will continue to do excellent work to help him.
But they can’t go out on the ice and play the games for Price, and they certainly can’t do so above the impossibly high bar he’s set throughout his Hall-of-Fame-worthy career.
Will he be willing to go through it all for at least 41 games next season? Willing to push through all the gymnastics in his crease, and all the bumps and bruises and potentially gruelling injury rehabilitations?
Friday, after Price made his emotional return to the net and experienced a love-in at the Bell Centre, it felt appropriate to just live in the moment and ignore all of that.
But once it passed, these were the questions that popped up watching Price face a much bigger test against a formidable Wild team on Tuesday. These are the questions that will persist from here to the end of the season—and possibly beyond if Price isn’t prepared to declare in two weeks what his future intentions are.