MONTREAL – A surprise awaited rookie Carey Price when he got to practice Monday – news that he’ll get a seventh straight start in goal for the Montreal Canadiens.
That despite the return of veteran Cristobal Huet from a pulled groin. Huet was expecting to be in goal when the Canadiens host to the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night.
Price’s stellar play in the last two games, in which he stopped 58 of 60 shots in 4-1 wins over Philadelphia and Toronto, convinced coach Guy Carbonneau to stay with the 20-year-old while he’s hot.
Huet was clearly disappointed with the decision.
“Obviously, the way Carey played the last two games, and with the team on a roll, he doesn’t want to change anything,” the French goaltender said. “I just have to work hard and maybe have a better practice than I did”.
“Hopefully, next game.”
Huet was injured in a 5-4 shootout loss to Nashville on Dec. 1, a game that saw the Canadiens waste leads of 3-0 and 4-1 in the third period. He returned Saturday night to back up Price against Toronto.
“That’s the choice I have to make,” said Carbonneau. “Cristobal is not happy and he shouldn’t be, but if I had put Cristobal back in net after the games that Carey just played, it would have been the same thing.”
Then he added with Yogi Berra-like simplicity: “It’s not an easy decision, but it’s an easy decision.”
Price is 3-2-1 on his current run of starts and 9-5-2 for the season, with a 2.70 goals-against average and .916 save percentage.
They aren’t breath-taking numbers, but are impressive enough for a rookie adjusting to NHL shooters and the big-league tempo of the game.
“Carey has been really good,” Carbonneau said Monday. “He’s playing even better than at the start of the season.
“He’s really comfortable and he’s playing with a lot of confidence.”
Huet’s injury coincided with a trip out of town by goaltending coach Roland Melanson. Price had the first rough patch of his NHL career in his first few games as the No. 1 goalie, which included losses at home of 4-1 to Detroit and 5-1 to Carolina.
Against the Hurricanes, he was replaced in the third by Jaroslav Halak, who was sent back to AHL Hamilton on Huet’s return.
When Melanson returned, he had Price play not so deep in the crease. The result was more pucks hitting his six-foot-three frame and fewer going in.
Price’s confidence took a noticeable step upward and that earned him at least one more start in goal.
“It’s nice,” he said. “I think I’ve been playing better lately so he decided to stick with me.
“We got a couple of wins in a row and he decided to stick with me to see if we can keep it rolling. And if things don’t work out, then Huet will go back in.”
It’s likely Huet will be back in the net either Friday night in Carolina or Saturday night in Dallas.
Price was selected fifth overall in the 2005 draft and is viewed as the Canadiens goaltender of the future. There’s a good chance the 32-year-old Huet, who can be an unrestricted free agent July 1, is in his last season in Montreal.
In 2006-’07, Price led Canada to a gold medal at the world junior championship, then guided Hamilton to the Calder Cup as an AHL rookie.
Now he is a central figure in the Canadiens youth movement.
With veterans Bryan Smolinski and Steve Begin out with injuries, the Canadiens have 11 players on their roster who are 25 years old or younger.
Price and forwards Guillaume Latendresse and Sergei Kostitsyn are 20, centre Kyle Chipchura is 21, forwards Andrei Kostitsyn and Maxim Lapierre are 22, defencemen Ryan O’Byrne and Josh Gorges are 23, winger Chris Higgins is 24 and centre Tomas Plekanec and defenceman Mike Komisarek are 25.
Only a few years ago, the Canadiens were criticized for their reluctance to give young players a chance. Not any longer, apparently.
“One thing I was enthusiastic about last year was I know we had some problems but you could see the kids were going to get better,” said Carbonneau. “They had the potential to be better.
“That’s what I look at – how far you can go with it. This year, it’s even better. It’s still a long way to the end of the season, but you see the kids have a chance to experience a lot of things and, at some point, it’s going to help us.”
Notes – Latendresse says he’s recovered from his so-called upper body injury, but Carbonneau will decide Tuesday morning whether he will play. . . Andrei Kostitsyn was not available to comment on his collision with Bryan McCabe that left the Leafs defenceman with a broken left hand. . . Defenceman Patrice Brisebois (shoulder) practised, but will not play.