BROSSARD, Que. – Much has changed for Carey Price since he was forced to watch from the bench last spring as unheralded goalie Jaroslav Halak took led the Montreal Canadiens to the Eastern Conference final.
Halak was traded not long after that despite becoming the darling of the Bell Centre crowd.
But then Price asserted his billing as a goaltending prodigy with a breakthrough 2010-’11 season, appearing in a career-high 72 games and finishing tied for the league lead with 38 victories.
Now it’s playoff time again, and it will be up to Price to hold the fort as tries to make people forget about Halak’s feat with his own string of upsets.
It starts in Boston, where the slick-skating Canadiens begin what should be a tight first-round series against the Bruins on Thursday night (CBC, 7 p.m. ET).
”I’ll just keep on doing what I’ve been doing all season,” Price said Tuesday. ”It’s not just me out there, there’s the other guys too.
“I’m not going to put all that burden on myself.”
The playoffs have not been kind to Price in recent years, but that was a younger, less disciplined version of the goaltender who was a rock of consistency this season.
After he came out of junior hockey and led the Hamilton Bulldogs to an AHL championship in 2007, the 2005 fifth overall draft pick won the starting job in Montreal. He posted two shutouts in a first-round victory over the Bruins in the 2008 postseason.
But the Canadiens were eliminated in the next round by Philadelphia, losing the final three games and Price hasn’t won in the playoffs since.
The Canadiens were swept by Boston in 2009, and he lost his only start of the 2010 playoffs, giving him a career 5-11 post-season record with a weak 3.17 goals-against average and .894 save percentage in 19 career appearances.
He takes an eight-game playoff winless run into the Boston series.
”Every year’s a new year so you never know what’s going to happen,” he said.
Then again, his rival in the Boston net, veteran Tim Thomas, has had his own struggles with the Canadiens as goaltending is widely seen as a saw-off in the series.
Thomas is 10-14-4 with a 3.05 GAA in the regular season against Montreal, but he picked up his first shutout against them in their least meeting—a 7-0 decision in Boston on March 24.
The Bruins veteran was 2-1-1 versus the Canadiens this season with 3.22 GAA while Price was 4-2-0 with a 3.46 average. Price also started in a fight-filled 8-6 loss at The TD Garden in February in which he squared off in an interesting but harmless altercation with the Bruins goalie.
When asked if there would be psychological fallout from being pulled from two straight games in Boston, Price said: ”It’s pretty irrelevant,
”Every team has games that aren’t very good,” he added. “Two of them happened to me against Boston.”
Price’s coming of age may have started late last season when he lost the started job to Halak and was further humbled by being relegated to the bench in the post-season.
Debate raged last summer over which of the two restricted free agents to keep, but general manager Pierre Gauthier opted to give the bigger, more gifted Price a US$5.5-million two-year contract and dealt Halak to St. Louis despite his better results.
A fitter, more focused Price arrived last September for training camp. When he let in some questionable goals and the crowd booed in his first pre-season game, Price suggested fans ”chill out” and wait for what he would do when the games counted in the standings.
This season, Price went 38-28-6 with a 2.35 GAA and .923 save percentage. Some feel he is a longshot Hart Trophy candidate for keeping the Canadiens in a playoff position despite a run of injuries on defence.
”Carey’s very confident in his ability,” said coach Jacques Martin. ”He’s had an outstanding season and I think he’s anxious and looking forward to the challenge that lies ahead.”
Price won’t argue with that.
”I’ve definitely learned a lot of over the last four years and a lot of it I can use going into these playoffs,” the Vancouver native said. ”Stay calmer and not let everyone get to me, so all that really matters is how I feel and how the team feels.
”Playing at this time of the year in this city is special. Now everyone’s got their flags out, Ste. Catherine Street is going to be pretty wild. Everyone’s all wrapped up, but the guys in this locker room have to stay calm and keep on doing what’s madeus successful. Not tighten up or get nervous.”
It may be a particularly rough series for Price. The Bruins like to crowd the net and have the big men to do it, starting with rugged winger Milan Lucic, who had nine points in six games against Montreal this season.
”We’re definitely aware of their big bodies in front and we have a plan to combat that,” he said. ”I can’t tell you what it is, obviously, but we’re aware of their size and strength and ability to go to the net.”
Mostly, Price wants to relive the excitement of a year ago, when then-eighth seeded Montreal upset top-seeded Washington in the first round and then knocked off defending champion Pittsburgh in the second, both in seven games. They were finally beaten in the conference final by Philadelphia.
This year, they finished sixth in the East.
”From what I remember, everyone stayed loose and had a lot of fun during the ride,” he said. ”We have a lot of players from last year here and they know what it felt like to get on that roll.
”It’s a special feeling. I felt that in Hamilton and I felt that here last year. You have that tight dressing room where anyone will do anything for anybody at any time. We have to get that feeling Thursday and ride it out.”
And he can’t wait to get to Boston, no doubt a hostile spot for Montreal after a series of bitter incidents between the division rivals this season.
”It’s a fun place to play,” a smiling Price insisted. ”I’m sure it’ll be wild when we get there.
”When we roll in into the Gardens they might try to flip over the bus or something. It’s going to be interesting in both rinks, for sure.”