MONTREAL — The final siren’s echo had barely faded Saturday when Canadiens goaltending coach Stéphane Waite stepped briskly onto a Bell Centre elevator, heading eight floors south from the press gallery to his team’s dressing room.
The product of Waite’s excellent work had been on display below for 60 minutes, the coach having had a tremendous influence on Antti Niemi, the winning goalie for the San Jose Sharks, and now on Montreal’s Carey Price, who was tagged with the 2-0 loss.
“Looks like you did maybe too good a job with Niemi,” I joked to Waite as we headed down, coach and pupil having won the 2010 Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Not fluent in the dialect of growl, I could only guess at the reply.
Niemi made 22 saves for his second shutout in three games, the 25th of his 224-game NHL career. For much of the night, the puck seemed the size of a beach ball to the 30-year-old Finn.
Price had a fine night, too, turning aside 33 Sharks shots.
He had no chance on Logan Couture’s second-period icebreaker, a delicate tip with a man advantage on a play that began when Couture got away with tripping Habs defenceman Raphael Diaz, seconds later cashing a nice two-way Sharks passing play with a deflection.
And then Price was burned on San Jose’s insurance goal early in the third when a Sharks dump-in deflected off a glass-binding support, a largely uncovered Couture shovelling a backhand into a vacant net with Price having gone behind expecting to play the incoming puck.
Sharks head coach Todd McLellan entertained a question about Lady Luck on the de-facto empty-net goal, but suggested there was a bit of planning that went into it.
“That’s where we needed to put it,” he said of the puck that bounced crazily in front of the Canadiens net after having been drilled in along the glass.
“We talked about that before the game. You could see even in the third period that (Price) likes to come out and play the puck. When it’s up on the glass, it doesn’t matter what rink you’re in, you can’t trust it.
“I thought early in the game we were laying pucks in and he was getting his stick on it. They were coming out a lot easier than they needed to be.
“We did a better job in the third of keeping the puck away from Carey. We got it up on the glass a little bit more because he’s as good as a defenceman in handling it.”
Niemi, who entered Sunday’s match in Ottawa having played all of the Sharks’ 11 games this season, was unbeatable at the other end of the rink.
With nine wins, one loss in regulation and another by shootout, he left Montreal on Saturday with a .933 save percentage, 1.53 goals-against average and a pair of shutouts.
Price stands at 5-5-0-1, with a .937 percentage, 2.12 average and a shutout.
Today, in his fourth season with San Jose, Niemi is coached by Corey Schwab. But it was under Waite in 2009-10, having arrived in Chicago in 2008 as an undrafted free agent, that he blossomed to lead the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup.
“Technique-wise, I think he’s very a good coach,” Niemi said of Waite post-game Saturday. “He teaches about movement, how to be compact, having patience. I think Carey has all those things already, but (Waite) will improve them.”
Niemi was unable to pinpoint the single most important thing he learned under Waite during their season together.
“It’s hard to say it’s just one thing,” he said. “Lots of different things — some mental but mostly technique.”
Waite would go on to win a second Stanley Cup last season, mentoring Corey Crawford in Chicago before signing with the Canadiens last July. But in 2010, the coach won his first championship with Niemi in a playoffs whose target never stopped moving.
Waite brought Niemi farther out of his net in the first round against Nashville and focused on rebound control. Vancouver then tried top shelf in the Western Conference semis, Waite shifting work to the goalie’s patience and keeping him from dropping to his pads too quickly.
He sharpened Niemi still more against San Jose in the Western final, moving him out of the net on rushes, then brought him back deep into the crease in the Cup final against the net-crowding Philadelphia Flyers.
“I was exhausted at the end and I wasn’t even playing,” Waite told Goalies’ World magazine that summer. “We did so much video. I’m very proud of Antti. He really competed hard and made the adjustments that I asked of him.”
Nearly an hour after Saturday’s final siren, there was something very special happening in the Bell Centre’s seventh-floor media lounge, unrelated to the night’s goaltending duel.
The Canadiens and a number of their corporate partners had hosted 53 cancer-afflicted youngsters and their families in loges on this night in a Hockey Fights Cancer initiative.
Now, many kids were glued to the side of popular Habs forward Brendan Gallagher for souvenir photos in a meet-and-greet, the player wearing a snappy suit and his relentless smile.
None of the star-struck kids knew that Gallagher still felt like his face had been hit with a sledgehammer, having flown mouth-first into the end boards at high speed, chasing a puck midway through the third period.
The 21-year-old took some time getting up, probably with bits of a board advertisement still between his teeth, but skated off and despite being walked to the dressing room didn’t miss a shift.
“I have a very sore face,” Gallagher grimaced to me on the elevator ride down, delighted children in his wake. “But I’m OK.”
By now, downstairs, Waite was deep into his dissection of Price’s work against the Sharks.
You knew that the goalie coach was pleased by his netminder’s work — and you suspected he was unhappily happy for the effort just turned in by Niemi, Waite’s fingerprints on more than a little of it.
© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette