Declaring a “moral victory” can often be a nice way to smother a pig in lipstick. But the term really did apply to the Montreal Canadiens for anyone who watched their season debut Wednesday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena.
The end result showed a 3-2 overtime loss, with the Leafs’ star power winning out on two goals from Auston Matthews and one from John Tavares. But no one in the building thought the Leafs were the better team that night. It wasn’t close in 5-on-5 play, with the Habs holding a 63-47 advantage in shot attempts. The Canadiens entered 2018-19 with miniscule expectations after missing the playoffs last season, trading captain Max Pacioretty and losing blueliner Shea Weber to knee surgery, but they showed something Wednesday. Rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the supposed reach at third overall in last June’s draft, looked dangerous with the puck on his stick. Max Domi, the subject of ridicule after earning a suspension for a pre-season sucker punch, was Montreal’s most dangerous and tenacious forward. Defenseman Mike Reilly showed mobility and physicality.
But perhaps most encouraging was seeing Carey Price look like regular old Carey Price in goal.
“Everybody saw the big saves he made,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “He was really good for us tonight.”
Price wasn’t perfect. He never seems to have an answer for Matthews’ release and even complimented it after the game when addressing reporters. But Price looked confident and smooth in his lateral movements. He made several 10-bell stops, sliding quickly across the goal line to thwart one-timers. He got high in his crease and challenged shooters.
“I felt pretty good right out of warmups,” Price said. “I spent the whole day preparing for it and felt pretty good.”
So he felt “pretty good” and still lost the game. Why is this news? Because it’s arguably been a while since Price felt pretty good. A concussion limited him to 48 starts last season, and he wasn’t himself when he did man the net. His .900 save percentage was the lowest of his 11-season career and ranked him 45th among 49 qualified leaders. Worse yet, among the 51 goalies who played at least 1,000 minutes 5-on-5 last year, Price was buried near the bottom in medium- and high-danger save percentages. In other words, when opponents got clean looks at him, they beat him. He looked nothing like the Price who won the Hart and Vezina Trophies in 2014-15 or even the Price who finished third in 2016-17 Vezina voting, which was particularly alarming when he’d signed an eight-year contract extension carrying a $10.5-million cap hit that kicked in this season.
But to see him so fluid and assured Wednesday has to energize the Canadiens and their fan base. They’re a team in transition, devoid of high-end talent relative to most of their competition this season, but Price has repeatedly shown the ability to elevate this team from also-ran to playoff-worthy during seasons when he’s “on.” The Habs also took a workmanlike approach to their opener, playing with furious urgency on the forecheck, seemingly taking two skating strides for every one Toronto stride. Price singled out the team’s younger players for showing great poise and playing with speed. That’s the way you have to play to overachieve. And in the Atlantic, a top-heavy division with several bottom-dweller teams projected to be terrible, you just never know. There are wins available. A great Price season could make the Canadiens far more relevant and interesting than anyone expects.
“You know what?” Price said. “If we keep playing like that, with that type of effort, we’re going to get rewarded more often than not.”