MONTREAL – If Carey Price is worried about being handed the No. 1 goaltending job by the Montreal Canadiens, he wasn’t showing it Thursday.
But little ever seems to faze the low-key 20-year-old who was tabbed as the Canadiens goalie of the future until GM Bob Gainey decided the future is now and sent veteran Cristobal Huet to Washington at the trade deadline Tuesday.
Price sailed through his first game without the Huet safety net, a 5-1 win over the undermanned Atlanta Thrashers on Tuesday night, and will be in goal again when the Canadiens visit the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night.
“Nothing’s going to change for me,” the Vancouver native said. “It’s just looks like I’ll be playing more minutes.
“There’s only 18 games left, so it’s not that huge of a workload.”
The Canadiens called up 22-year-old Jaroslav Halak from Hamilton of the AHL to serve as Price’s back-up, giving Montreal the youngest, least experienced goaltending duo in the league. If you add their ages together, they are only two months older than Detroit goalie Dominik Hasek.
Their combined 45 games of NHL experience is lowest in the NHL – 15 fewer than Tampa Bay’s twosome of 25-year-old Mike Smith and 22-year-old Karri Ramo.
“It’s motivation,” Price said. “Whenever you’re criticized on something you always want to prove people wrong and that you can get the job done.
“The only way you get experience is by playing, so the rest of this year is going to be a really good learning curve for me.”
Many Canadiens fans were shocked and some were angry that the popular Huet was traded, but it was a move consistent with what Gainey has done in recent years – bringing up a talented young player to replace a less gifted veteran and to learn on the job.
The same was done with 20-year-olds Guillaume Latendresse and Sergei Kostitsyn and he also called up 23-year-old centre Mikhail Grabovski and had him in the lineup on Tuesday.
Gainey said the Huet trade was made to open a spot for Halak, who was leading the AHL with a 2.10 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage.
Coach Guy Carbonneau isn’t worried.
“I never had problems with Carey before so why would I have problems now?” he said. “It’ll be a great experience.
“You don’t gain experience by sitting on the bench.”
When Huet was there, Carbonneau used a win-and-you’re-in system, in which a goalie stayed in the net until he lost a game. Now, Price is tabbed as No. 1, but Halak could see action as early as this weekend as they Canadiens also play Saturday night at home against New Jersey, although he has yet to name his goalie for that game.
“Now, Carey is our man,” said Carbonneau. “But I know what the other can do.
“He’s done it in the past. So if Carey has a little letdown, or in cases like this weekend when we have two games in two nights. . . I’m sure Jaro is going to see some activity in the next little while.”
The five-foot-11 Halak was drafted 271st overall in 2003 and played junior for Lewiston in the QMJHL before entering the Canadiens system. With Huet injured last season, the Slovak goalie went 10-6-0 in 16 games for Montreal, including a seven-game home win streak, to help the team’s late push for a playoff spot.
Huet went back in the net for the decisive final game of the season in Toronto and took the loss as the Canadiens missed the post-season.
The Canadiens drafted Price fifth overall in 2005 and the six-foot-three goalie has been on a steep rise since then. Last season, he helped Canada to gold at the world junior championships, then moved to Hamilton after the regular season to lead the Bulldogs to the AHL title. He won the Jack Butterfield Trophy as AHL playoff MVP.
While he is tending goal in Buffalo on Friday night, the Bulldogs will be handing out Carey Price bobblehead dolls to the first 7,500 spectators to enter Copps Coliseum for a game against the Iowa Stars. Price said he hasn’t seen them yet.
“Max (Lapierre) said they look pretty good,” Price said with a grin. “It’s pretty cool. I’ve never had a bobblehead before.”
Goaltending is a strong position in the Montreal organization.
In Hamilton, 26-year-old Yann Danis, who looked good in six games with the Canadiens in 2005-06 but who hasn’t been back since, takes over as No. 1.
Prospect Cedrick Desjardins was called up from Cincinnati of the ECHL to back up Danis. Desjardins played for the Sidney Crosby-led Rimouski Oceanic when they went to the Memorial Cup final in 2005 and won the Cup with the Quebec Remparts the following season. The 22-year-old was leading the ECHL with a 1.92 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage.
Captain Saku Koivu said Huet will be missed, but the job of keeping the team in playoff position goes on.
“It takes time to get used to not having a friend next to you,” said Koivu. “He’s was here a long time and we all liked him very much.
“But at the same time, you have to be focused and get ready for the games because at this time all the points you can get make it easier for you in the end.”
He said the win over Atlanta was important because it “showed we could do it with these guys here.”
Carboneau said there would be no lineup changes against Buffalo, so veterans Bryan Smolinski, Tom Kostopoulos, Mathieu Dandenault and Patrice Brisebois will sit out again.
The Canadiens are 2-3-0 against Buffalo this season. The Sabres have won the last three meetings, although they last met on Nov. 24.