MONTREAL — The Bell Centre (unlike the old Forum) may be woefully short of useful ghosts — but no player who steps on the ice can be unaware of the massive weight of tradition behind the CH.
Especially not the goaltenders. We all remember poor Jocelyn Thibault, visibly slumping under the weight when he let in a bad goal, clearly oppressed by the gigantic shadow of Patrick Roy.
And Roy was only the most recent great goaltender for the bleu-blanc-rouge. Georges Vézina carried the mantle for a full 16 seasons. George Hainsworth played for eight more. Bill Durnan, Jacques Plante, Gump Worsley, Ken Dryden, Roy. No one would say that José Theodore was one of the giants — but even he won a Vézina and a Hart Trophy.
From his first start for the Canadiens on Oct. 10, 2007 (a game I covered in Pittsburgh) Price has been, for better and for worse, the heir to that tradition.
At times, it’s appeared that he would step up and play his number 31 to the rafters with Dryden and Roy and Plante.
At other times, it’s appeared that he was on his way out of town — outplayed by Jaro Halak, stumbling down the stretch and into the playoffs last spring, an inconsistent, unpredictable and somewhat enigmatic young man who wasn’t quite living up to the hype.
No more. When Canada faces Norway in its first preliminary round game of the Sochi Olympics at the Bolshoy Ice Dome on Feb. 13, the man in the crease almost certainly will be the tall, laconic 26-year-old from Anahim Lake, the goaltender of the Montreal Canadiens — Carey Price.
Price won’t get his first real test until Canada plays Finland on Feb. 16 but the odds against anyone else winning the job at this point are prohibitive. Roberto Luongo is fighting a groin injury, Josh Harding and Jonathan Bernier have slender resumés as the No. 1 goalie on their respective teams, Martin Brodeur is 41 (and deserving of a roster spot, in my view) and anyone who wants to wager Canada’s chances on the bundle of nerves that is Marc-André Fleury is out of his ever-lovin’ mind.
Not that Price has won the job by default. He was in the mix going into this season and he has grabbed the job by the throat with the best season of his career. After defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning in a shootout Saturday night, Price is 18-11-2 for this campaign despite slender goal support, with a 2.06 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage.
Those numbers are significantly better than Price’s previous best season in 2010-2011, when he had a 2.35 goals-against and a .923 save percentage. Much of the credit has gone to the team’s shadow MVP, goalie coach Stéphane Waite — with reason.
Anyone who has been watching Price for the past six years can see the difference: he’s up more, he’s square to the puck, he isn’t backing into the net, he’s absorbing rebounds and (most importantly) he isn’t dropping to his knees at the first feint from the blue line.
But as solid a coach as Waite appears to be, a coach can talk his tonsils off and it won’t mean a thing if a player isn’t willing to do the work to apply what he’s hearing. I’ve seen many a boxer bring in a new trainer, work to adapt his style for months — then revert to all his bad habits in the heat of the ring.
Playing goal in the NHL is not dissimilar to boxing, but from the start of this season, Price has been able to shed his bad habits and to put Waite’s teachings to immediate effect. Give the young man full credit: he’s done the work, he has the focus, he’s making it happen.
The result goes well beyond Price’s stats. Despite Sunday night’s rather dispiriting loss on wave-’em-off night in Florida, the Canadiens are still a solid third in the Atlantic Division. They have survived a stretch when the scorers were cold as a dog’s nose and they’re still in touch with the division-leading Bruins, who are going to have to find a way to replace Dennis Seidenberg in the lineup for the balance of the season.
Goaltending is the one spot on the ice where the Canadiens play is a significant uptick from last season. Price’s success masks difficulties in several areas, especially with some of the forwards up front — like Brian Gionta, who hasn’t scored in 26 games, Rene Bourque, who hasn’t seemed right since the beginning of the season, and even Brendan Gallagher, who is still battling through the heavy traffic but with less success.
The way Price is playing, he gives you the most significant thing a goalie can give, a chance to win every time he takes the ice. A half-season isn’t going to put him in the pantheon with Roy, Dryden, Plante and Vézina. But after a career that has seen as many speed bumps as highlights, Price is now clearly in command of himself and his game.
And when he takes that game onto the big ice in Sochi in February, it will be on the one stage that dwarfs playing goal for the Montreal Canadiens.
Heroes: Michael Schumacher, Eugenie Bouchard, Dominique Maltais, Christine Nesbitt, Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Markov, Brendan Gallagher, P.K. Subban, Saku Koivu, Marc Bergevin, Geoff Molson, Chip Cox, Patrice Bernier, Marco Di Vaio, Georges St. Pierre, Lionel Messi, Big Papi Ortiz, Mariano Rivera, LeSean McCoy, Peyton Manning, Masai Ujiri, Nelson Mandela, the Arctic 30, Pussy Riot, Pope Francis, Edward Snowden, Paul Blair, Stéphane Waite &&&& last but not least, Carey Price.
Zeros: Lance Armstrong, Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Brent Sutter, Ron MacLean, Don Cherry, P.J. Stock, Melody Davidson, Hockey Canada, Shawn Thornton, Joe Flacco, Dana White, Nicolas Anelka, Dallas Eakins, Vladimir Putin, Stephen Harper, Rob Ford, Semyon Varlamov, Jameis Winston, Daniel Snyder, “the Redskins,” Jerry Jones, Nick Saban, Bill O’Brien, Rudy Gay, Claude Brochu, David Samson &&&& last but not least, Jeffrey Loria.
© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette