BROSSARD, Que. – Goaltender Carey Price says it is sheer coincidence that the new, flaming red pads he wore in practice on Monday go perfectly with the NHL Eastern Conference all-star team uniform.
“They have the Habs logo – they just happen to match really well,” said Price, one of four Canadiens that ballot box-stuffing Montreal fans voted onto the starting lineup for the all-star game on Sunday at the Bell Centre. “I’ll wear them next game.”
Price is back on the ice after missing eight games with a sprained ankle.
There had been doubts the 21-year-old would be ready to play in the all-star game or that it would be wise to risk aggravating the injury in a meaningless exhibition.
But he has the green light from the trainers, and from Guy Carbonneau, although the coach would rather not have him take part in Saturday’s all-star skills competition – an event that may call for more acrobatic manoeuvres in the crease than the gently played all-star game.
“I know each goalie plays 20 minutes in the game,” said Carbonneau. “They may face a lot of shots, but it’s not like they have to raise their level high.
“In the skills competition, it’s a little different, so I hope he stays away from that.”
That shouldn’t be a problem for Price.
Two skills events involve goalies – the breakaway challenge in which top players get style marks for clever breakaway moves; and the elimination shootout, in which all 36 all-star skaters take penalty shots until one winner emerges.
The NHL is looking at using non-NHL goalies for the breakaway challenge because it is more about the shooters than the goaltenders, while goalies from the YoungStars game – which pits NHL rookies against sophomores in a 3-on-3 game – are on hand to fill in for any goalie with injury concerns in the elimination shootout.
Last week, Carbonneau said he didn’t want Price in the all-star game if he wasn’t ready to play in regular-season games. Almost overnight, Price’s ankle showed improvement and on Sunday, No. 3 goaltender Marc Denis was returned to the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs.
That raised the question of wether Price was rushing back from the injury so he wouldn’t miss the all-star game, which the Anahim Lake, B.C. native flatly denied.
“I don’t see why anyone would want to rush back – it doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
Carbonneau has yet to decide whether to use Price in games Tuesday night in Atlanta or Wednesday night in New Jersey.
Since he’s been out, backup Jaroslav Halak has a 6-2-0 record, although he has allowed 27 goals in that span.
“I’m 100 per cent now,” said Price. “I’m practising with the team, I’m going (on the road trip) with the team and hopefully I’ll be able to play.
“It’s a sprained ankle, so it’s going to take months for it to go away fully, but I’ve got full strength and there’s no pain.”
Price has not lost a game in regulation time since a 2-1 defeat to Carolina on Nov. 18, although he’s played only 12 games since then.
Also on the ice at Complexe Sportif Bell were forwards Saku Koivu, who has missed 16 games with an ankle injury, and Christopher Higgins, who has missed 17 with a bad shoulder.
Both will make the trip so they can skate in practices with their teammates, but neither will be ready to play until after the all-star break.
Higgins said that while his conditioning is fine, he had not yet been cleared to engage in hitting or getting hit.
Defenceman Mathieu Dandenault (broken arm) and forward Georges Laraque (back) skated before practice and should take longer to return.
What the injured veterans will return to is a team that barely missed them.
The Canadiens lost a season-high three games in a row after Higgins and Dandenault were injured in the same game Dec. 9 against Calgary (Koivu went down the following game against Tampa Bay), but they are 11-2-1 since then with a lineup sprinkled with call-ups from Hamilton.
In their absence, rookie Max Pacioretty has looked impressive on the top line with Tomas Plekanec and Alex Kovalev, brothers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn have been red-hot playing with centre Robert Lang, and a checking line of Max Lapierre with Guillaume Latendresse and Tom Kostopoulos has been solid at both ends of the ice.
Rookie Matt D’Agostini has shown a nose for the net, while Gregory Stewart and Kyle Chipchura have also held their own.
Some wonder if there will be room for the returning injured players.
“Saku, Carey and I were watching the game the other night and we were wondering the same thing,” Higgins said. “A lot of guys are playing really good hockey right now.
“You feel bad coming in and disrupting what the team has going, but you want to play yourself and start contributing.”
Carbonneau was hardly reassuring on that front. While he acknowledged the injured veterans would be back in the lineup, he said they will have to work to keep their spots on the top lines and their ice time.
“The way we’re playing now, I’d be a little worried if I was one of the injured guys,” said Carbonneau. “It shows we have players who can step in.
“If we had six injuries and our record was 2-14, I would probably think differently, but the guys here the last month or so have worked extremely hard for us. I know that life isn’t fair and some of those guys are going to lose their jobs because guys are coming back, but the people who are coming back are going to have to show me that they deserve to be there.”
And if they don’t?
“Well, then there’ll be a great fourth line,” Carbonneau said with a smile.