MONTREAL – Carey Price clearly doesn’t enjoy watching games from the bench, but with his Montreal Canadiens riding a four-game winning streak he sees no reason for head coach Jacques Martin to call on his services just yet.
“Everybody wants to play, but when the team’s doing well you have to think of the team first and that’s what I’m doing right now,” Price said after Habs practice Tuesday. “He’s on a streak right now. He’s been playing well, so he deserves his playing time.”
“He” is Jaroslav Halak, who entered the year pencilled in as the backup goalie but has backstopped his team to four straight wins after Price lost his last four starts.
Martin said he would only announce his starter for Wednesday night’s game in Pittsburgh after the game-day skate, but it would be a shock to see him call on Price considering how well Halak has played.
Halak has a .942 save percentage and 1.45 goals against average over the last four games, but he refuses to let it get to his head.
He said after Monday night’s 3-2 overtime win over the New York Islanders that he didn’t expect to get the call for a fourth straight game.
“I was a bit surprised, but on the other hand I was happy,” Halak said. “Right now we’re winning and coach doesn’t want to change the lineup. We’ll see for how long.”
Speculation has run rampant in Montreal about when Price will get another start in goal, with many assuming Monday’s game was the opportune moment.
When Montreal faces Pittsburgh on Wednesday it will have been 11 days since Price last played in a game, and when the Habs visit Chicago on Friday it will be two days longer. With the Canadiens facing two of the league’s best teams over the next two games, a natural time to bring Price back would be Halloween night at home against the last-place Toronto Maple Leafs as it is the second of back-to-back games in two cities a time zone apart.
Martin says the upcoming opponent is a factor to consider when deciding when to bring Price back, and he assures that time is not very far away.
“We have so many games, we’re going to need him and we have a lot of confidence in his ability,” Martin said. “We know he’s going to be a big factor in our success in the season. It’s a matter of timing and getting the right opportunity, but it will come soon.”
Price says he welcomes the threat of Halak taking away some of his minutes because the team will be the ultimate beneficiary.
“When the other guy’s playing well, you’ve got to play well too,” Price said. “So you need that healthy competition between your goaltenders, it just makes for a better team in general.”
Whether it’s Price or Halak in the Canadiens net, it may not matter much because of how much Montreal has improved its defensive play since suffering a 7-1 beating in Vancouver on Oct. 7. The Habs allowed 144 shots on goal in their first four games, but have allowed only 166 in the seven games since that humiliating loss on the West Coast.
“What’s encouraging for our team is how we’re playing without the puck,” Martin said. “We’ve been able to limit the shots against and the scoring chances against during this streak.”
A big reason for the solid defensive play has been the emergence of fellow Czechs Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek as a top pairing on the blue-line. Both are playing a shade under 25 minutes per game while logging minutes on both special teams units and facing the opposition’s top forwards night after night.
“They’ve developed some chemistry,” Martin said. “Their communication is good, they’ve been asked to play against the other team’s top line every game and they’ve responded well defensively.”
The play of the defence has been a pleasant surprise in the absence of all-star Andrei Markov, who was lost for at least four months after severing a tendon in his left ankle on Price’s skate in the opening game of the season Oct. 1.