BROSSARD, Que. — Carey Price likes to do his talking on the ice, but the man of few words uttered four this past Sunday that perfectly encapsulated what’s at stake for him as the Montreal Canadiens prepare for their Stanley Cup Playoff series against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“It’s a golden opportunity,” he said.
How many more will Price have while he’s still capable of authoring the performances that have him revered by his teammates and feared by his opponents? He’s 33, playing in just his third series since 2015 and behind a team with internal expectations that haven’t been higher since his very first season with the organization.
Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe knows what his team is up against.
“Any goaltending you face has the ability to play really well and change the series and all those kind of things,” he said, “and clearly a goalie of Price’s pedigree, you know he has that.”
Pedigree is what we have to go on, because this has been anything but a banner year for the Anahim Lake, B.C. native.
Price never quite found his rhythm in January, winning three of five games and posting an unflattering .898 save percentage. February was disastrous, with a 2-4-1 record and even worse numbers behind it — leading to the firing of longtime Canadiens goaltending coach Stephane Waite and the promotion of director of goaltending Sean Burke. Price was back to being Price in March, posting a 6-1-2 record with a scoring .931 save percentage, but a sub-standard April was cut short by a concussion suffered in Edmonton.
Still, this is what Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme said Price can do for his team starting this Thursday:
“He's calm, he's in control and he's a competitor,” he started. “The guys know that he's going to rise at the right time, like now. The guys know he's going to be at his best. That's why he's got that impact on the team. It's good to see a guy like that coming back to play.”
There’s not a person in Montreal’s room that doesn’t believe that, regardless of what people outside of it might think.
If you thought the Canadiens should be skeptical after seeing Price allow two goals on 15 shots in Monday’s Laval Rocket game against the Toronto Marlies, think again.
Those two periods he played, in a meaningless AHL game, were akin to a driving-range session before a big match — a chance to find his timing, get some feeling and knock the bad shots out of the bag before heading to the first tee. Without them, he’d be heading to Toronto cold, without having scrambled around his crease in a game situation for nearly an entire month and after having been through concussion symptoms he described as “really bad,” following his collision with Oilers forward Alex Chiasson.
“I started feeling a little woozy on the ice,” Price said. “I first noticed that there were flashing lights on the ice and it didn’t make me feel very good. As I went into the locker room, I knew that I wasn’t feeling very good, so the training staff decided that it was a good idea to take me out of the game. I had really bad symptoms for the next two days, pounding headaches. It wasn’t a pleasant time, so I’m thankful to be feeling better now.”
And Price is thankful to once again be back at centre stage, under the spotlight that’s always seen him shine brightest — as an MVP at the 2007 World Juniors with Team Canada and the MVP of the Calder Cup Playoffs with the Hamilton Bulldogs just months later, as the goaltender who captured gold in Sochi with a .972 save percentage in 2014 before taking the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference final later that year, and as a player who has a .927 save percentage over his last four playoff runs — including a .936 in the bubble last summer.
The Canadiens were a different team then, a 24th-place team gifted the opportunity to play those games in Toronto, without much riding on the line aside from some key development for their young players.
But Price’s performance there was as much a factor in the massive investment made in this year’s roster as 21-year-old Nick Suzuki’s big leap forward was. Players like Josh Anderson, Tyler Toffoli, Joel Edmundson and Corey Perry were brought in to help get the Canadiens through the battles, and Jake Allen was traded for and signed to give Price the optimal amount of rest so he could be at his best when it mattered most.
“He’s excited,” said Brendan Gallagher. “He’s excited for this opportunity… The excitement and the hunger is definitely there, and it’s nice to see.”
The challenge will be monumental to start, up against the most offensively prolific team in the North Division and the superstar talent that Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares possess.
The Maple Leafs scored 14 goals in four games against Price this season.
But the games that are coming up next are the ones he’s built his reputation on.
“He’s one of the top goalies in the world and we’re lucky to have him on this side,” said Perry. “He’s gone through some tough situations this year, but he’s a battler. He competes and he wants to be on the ice when the games matter. And there’s no better opportunity than when you’re going into the playoffs to show what he can do. We have full confidence in him.”
Price will have to reinforce that confidence with his play, because he knows as well as anyone that opportunities like the one in front him are few and far between.