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The Habs' Price: Mature, brilliant & ready

BOSTON – He made it look easy, and they made it easy on him. This was Carey Price(notes) at his best, moving into position, seeing the puck, letting it hit him, time after time after time, keeping the Montreal Canadiens in the game. The Boston Bruins didn’t do enough about it. They kept firing shots, but they kept firing them from the outside, kept firing them into defenders, kept firing them right into Price’s pads.

When it was over Thursday night, the Habs had won the highly anticipated playoff opener between these old, bitter rivals, 2-0. Price had a 31-save shutout and his first playoff victory in almost three years. The Bruins, so desperate to make a long playoff run, had only frustration and the sobering realization of how difficult this series might be.

“He’s one of the best in the world now,” Canadiens center Scott Gomez(notes) said. “Whether he likes it or not, he has set the bar that high. He has been waiting for this.”

This wasn’t about Habs-Bruins history Thursday night – ancient or recent. Not the 33 playoff series between the teams, 24 won by Montreal. Not the brawl-filled 8-6 Bruins victory in Boston earlier this season. Not the 4-1 Habs victory that followed, marred by the Zdeno Chara(notes)-Max Pacioretty incident in Montreal. Not the subsequent 7-0 Bruins beatdown in Boston.

This was about two former Stanley Cup champions coming up big for the Canadiens, bookending the game with goals. Twice, Gomez set up linemate Brian Gionta(notes), swiping the puck, passing it off, watching Gionta bury it – 2:45 into the first period, then again with 3:18 to go in the third.

Mostly, though, this was about Price and what he did in between those goals. The last time Price won a playoff game, it was April 24, 2008. After beating the Bruins in a seven-game series – with two shutouts, one in Game 7 – he beat the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round. He was only 20 years old.

“You can’t buy age or experience,” said Price, still only 23. “I’ve gone through a lot since my last win in the playoffs.”

Price lost his next three to the Flyers. He lost four straight to the Bruins in the playoffs the next year. He lost his job to Jaroslav Halak(notes) last season. Halak led the eighth-seeded Canadiens to the Eastern Conference final, upsetting the Washington Capitals, the winners of the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team, and then the Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending Stanley Cup champs.

General manager Pierre Gauthier traded Halak, a pending restricted free agent, so sure that Price, the fifth overall pick in the 2005 NHL draft, would be the better player in the long run. Price was booed in his first preseason game. He told the fans to chill, and then he gave them a reason to, going 38-28-6 with a 2.35 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.

When Price shut out the Bruins on Thursday night, the obvious comparison was to Halak. Can Price do what Halak did last year? Can he lead the sixth-seeded Canadiens on a similar magical run?

Gomez took it a couple of steps further. He played with Halak. He also played with Henrik Lundqvist(notes) with the New York Rangers and Martin Brodeur(notes) with the New Jersey Devils. Great goaltending is all he’s known, and nothing has changed now that he’s playing with Price, who has matured and works harder than he ever has before.

“He’s just at a different level now,” Gomez said. “Even in practice. You get one by him, you’ve got to let him know it. … You see a lot of Brodeur in that. … When you got one past Marty, you definitely had to (curse) him just to let him know that you got one by him.”

The Bruins couldn’t get one by Price on Thursday night, and as they tried and tried, the frustration level rose throughout the building. You could feel it. You could hear it. Even when Price didn’t make a save at all.

Brad Marchand(notes), the 22-year-old sparkplug appearing in his first playoff game, blew the Bruins’ best two chances, both in the first period. On a breakaway, he tried to put the puck on his backhand and lift it, but it went along the ice meekly. Stationed at the side of the net, he received a sweet pass from Tomas Kaberle(notes), but he rushed it, the puck going off the heel of his stick and wide.

The Bruins took 18 shots in the second period alone, but the most telling sequence didn’t involve a shot. Kaberle wound up on the right wing, and the roar of the crowd rose in anticipation. He didn’t shoot. He wound up again, and the roar rose again. He didn’t shoot. He threw a pass across the ice, but it went off the boards and out of the zone. Boos.

Too often, the Bruins were too fancy or just not forceful enough – not going to the hard areas, not making life hard on Price. The Canadiens kept his crease clear and kept many pucks from even reaching him, blocking 19 shots.

“He’s a good goalie, yes,” Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron(notes) said. “But we’ve got to make sure we have traffic in front of him. He’s going to make those stops if he sees it, and that’s all.”

The Bruins are supposed to be the bigger, badder team. The Habs are supposed to be the speedier, more elusive team. As the series develops, the Bruins are going to have to find a way to throw their weight around without taking penalties. The Habs are going to have to generate more offense.

Price just has to keep doing what he’s doing.

“When you look at the kind of season he had, he was our most valuable player,” Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said. “He gave us a chance to win every night. We’re very confident in his ability, and it’s up to us to give him some help, some good protection. And that’s why it should be a good series.”