Last season, Carey Price raised the Calder Cup while playing in minor leagues. This season, the 20-year-old goaltender hopes he can help the vaunted Montreal Canadiens lift the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1993.
After helping Montreal secure its first division title in 16 years, Price and Canadiens meet the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night at the Bell Centre.
Price stopped 32 shots for his third shutout as Montreal clinched the Northeast Division crown by beating Ottawa 3-0 on Tuesday. Considered the Canadiens’ goaltender of the future after being selected fifth overall in the 2005 NHL draft, Price took over as the No. 1 goalie Feb. 26 when veteran Cristobal Huet was traded to Washington.
In 13 starts since then, Price is 10-3-0 with a 2.29 goals-against average and two shutouts. Two of those wins have come against the Sabres in Buffalo.
Following a stellar junior career, Price joined Montreal’s AHL affiliate in Hamilton, Ontario late last season and helped lead them to a championship. Though the Canadiens have won an NHL-best 23 titles, they haven’t captured the Stanley Cup since beating Los Angeles in 1993.
Coach Guy Carbonneau, a member of Montreal’s last championship club, believes Price has the mental toughness necessary for a long playoff run.
“I think everything that we’ve thrown at him, he’s responded very well,” Carbonneau said. “He did the same thing in junior, he did the same thing last year in the American (Hockey) League, he seems to get better when the pressure’s on and the games are important.”
Against the Senators, Alex Kovalev registered his team-high 35th goal and Mathieu Dandenault and Andrei Kostitsyn also scored for Montreal (45-25-10), which reached 100 points for the first time since 1993. The Canadiens can finish no worse than second in the Eastern Conference.
Kovalev was held without a point in his first five games against the Sabres this season, but has notched a goal and five assists in his last two. That included a career-high four assists - three coming on power-play goals by Tomas Plekanec - in a 6-2 victory Feb. 29.
Buffalo (38-30-12) won the Presidents’ Trophy last season by setting franchise records with 53 wins and 113 points, but is sitting in 10th place in the East.
The Sabres reached the conference finals each of the last two seasons, losing to eventual Stanley Cup winner Carolina in 2006 and Ottawa last year. Now, Buffalo is trying to avoid joining the New York Rangers (1992-93) and Montreal (1969-70) as the only teams since 1967-68 to miss the postseason after leading the league in points the previous season.
Buffalo staved off elimination for one more night Tuesday, defeating Toronto 4-3 on Maxim Afinogenov’s goal in the sixth round of the shootout.
“We absolutely needed it,” said the Sabres’ Ryan Miller, who denied the last three Maple Leafs he faced the tiebreaker. “Maybe it’s a starting point, that we can feel like we can play with a little more pressure on us.”
Miller has surrendered 17 goals in six games against Montreal this season, but 10 have come in the last two matchups - both losses.
Derek Roy, Steve Bernier and Thomas Vanek scored in regulation for Buffalo on Tuesday. Roy is riding a career-best 10-game point streak (five goals, 12 assists) and has a career-high 32 goals this season - one behind Vanek for the team lead.
Roy has a goal and six assists during a five-game point streak versus the Canadiens.