BROSSARD, Que. – The much-travelled Alex Auld will be in another unfamiliar place Friday night—the Montreal Canadiens net as the starting goaltender.
Canadiens coach Jacques Martin tabbed Auld to play against the Islanders in New York after Carey Price started the team’s first nine regular-season games.
”He’s a veteran, he’s had to deal with this situation before but it’s definitely a challenge for him,” Martin said Thursday. “We have four games this week and I thought it was time to give Auld a chance.”
And Auld was certainly appreciative.
”Anytime you get an opportunity with a new team you’re excited,” said Auld. ”Maybe a few years ago I would have dwelled on it more but now my focus is day-to-day.
”I found that if you start worrying about the games you’re not playing then you’re not ready when it’s your turn. I just had to stay sharp. I knew it would come.”
Price, who will be back in goal at home Saturday night against the Florida Panthers, has earned a rest.
There was concern as the campaign began whether Price could handle the starting job after losing it last season to Jaroslav Halak, who was spectacular in the Canadiens surprise playoff run to the Eastern Conference final.
Unable to keep both goalies, who were both eligible to become restricted free agents July 1, general manager Pierre Gauthier went for Price’s combination of size and talent and traded Halak to the St. Louis Blues for prospects Lars Eller and Ian Schultz.
Auld, 29, signed a one-year US$1-million contract as a free agent to back up Price and be a guiding influence on the 23-year-old who is brimming with skill but who has not always been mentally sharp.
The jury is still out on whether Gauthier made the right choice. As of Thursday, Halak led the NHL with a 1.81 goals-against average with the Blues to go with a 4-1-1 record and .929 save percentage.
But Price has also excelled, going 6-2-1 with a 2.32 GAA and .913 save percentage. The team’s overall 2.31 average is seventh best in the NHL and the Canadiens are challenging for first place overall in the 30-team league.
”Last year I said we had two No. 1 goalies,” said Martin. ”I thought the competition brought out the best in both of them and helped them grow and to understand the demands of being a No. 1.
”This year it’s a different situation from the start. Alex is a veteran who has a good relationship with Carey and he’ll give us some strong games.”
Price signed a two-year $5.5-million contract and put in extra work with Canadiens goaltending coach Pierre Groulx this summer. While he struggled early in the pre-season, drawing boos from the Bell Centre crowd, Price has allowed only a few soft goals in the regular season.
Suddenly it is Montreal’s league-worst power play, with only two goals in 32 chances for a 6.2 per cent success rate, that is the concern. The once raging goaltending controversy has gone quiet.
Auld understood Price would get the bulk of the work and part of his job was to support the young goaltender.
”I feel like we’ve developed as close a relationship as we could in a short amount of time,” said Auld. ”I came into it looking forward to getting to know him and trying to help out any way I can.
”He’s very open to discussion and talking through things. It’s good to know someone else’s perspective on something who has been through the same things. Only a goalie understands goaltending and really knows what you’re seeing out there. Our relationship is building and I can only see it getting better.”
Auld was once a bright goaltending prospect himself. He was drafted in the second round by Florida in 1999 and began his career with the Vancouver Canucks in 2001. He then played for Florida, Phoenix, Boston, Ottawa, Dallas and the New York Rangers before signing with Montreal.
He had some excellent runs of games with the Canucks, Bruins and Senators, but his only year as a No. 1 was when he played 67 games for Vancouver in 2005-’06.
Martin declined to speculate on how many games Price would startthis season, saying it will depend on the performance of his two goalies.
The most regular-season games Price has ever played is 63 with Tri-City in the Western Hockey League in 2004-’05, just before Montreal drafted him fifth overall.
But he made his name by playing 82 games in 2006-’07, when he played 52 games for Tri-City, another six while helping Canada win gold at the world junior championships, and 24 more while winning MVP honours as Montreal’s top farm club the Hamilton Bulldogs won the American Hockey League title.
”I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a guy at that age with that much experience in games played,” said Auld. ”And he’s continuing to mature and develop.
”Technically, he’s one of the best in the game and he’s learning how to do that every night. He has probably been our most consistent player right though and that’s big for him and big for our team. You need good goaltending to be competitive.”
Help is on the way for the power play. Martin confirmed top defenceman and point man Andrei Markov will return Saturday from a knee injury suffered during the playoffs.
That raises the question of which current rearguard will sit out. The obvious pick would be Alexandre Picard, who is on a two-way contract. But Picard has played well, while veteran Jaroslav Spacek has struggled.
Spacek admits he has not been at his best but said he had trouble getting ”in sync” as his regular partner Roman Hamrlik missed the entire pre-season and the first two regular-season games with a knee injury.
”I think I’ve been playing better the last few games,” he said.