Price check: Habs goalie playing like true No. 1

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

MONTREAL – He dived to his left with his glove outstretched, looking more like a third baseman for the old Montreal Expos than the goaltender of the modern Montreal Canadiens. Carey Price(notes) snared the puck off the stick of the Carolina HurricanesChad LaRose(notes), and the Bell Centre erupted midway through the third period Saturday night.

The speakers blared the theme song from “The Price is Right.” The fans chanted, “CAR-EY! CAR-EY!” Price smiled behind his mask and bobbed his shoulders – up and down, up and down, like a boxer who’s feeling good in the fight – as defenseman P.K. Subban(notes) showed his approval.

“I told him that it was absolutely disgusting what he did,” Subban said after the Habs’ 7-2 victory. “Somebody sneaks in the back door. I take my man to the net. I turn around, and he’s on his back or on his neck or something, doing something he shouldn’t be doing out there. It’s the Carey Price Show right now, man.”

And to think: It was “The Gong Show” just a couple of months ago. The fans found Price absolutely disgusting in a different sense on Sept. 22, when Price allowed four goals on nine shots in a 4-2 loss to the Boston Bruins. It was only the first preseason game. But they booed him anyway, upset that the Habs had traded playoff hero Jaroslav Halak(notes) to the St. Louis Blues, handing Price the No. 1 job.

Price held the No. 1 job to start last season, too. But he lost it to Halak, who led the Canadiens to seven-game upsets of the Washington Capitals, winners of the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending Stanley Cup champions. Montreal hadn’t made it so deep in the playoffs since winning the Cup in 1993. The Habs might as well have been the Halaks.

Then general manager Pierre Gauthier picked Price as his goaltender of the future, with Halak scheduled to become a restricted free agent. Price, now 23, was the fifth overall pick in the 2005 NHL draft. Halak, now 25, was a ninth-round pick in 2003. Gauthier sent Halak to St. Louis for a pair of prospects: center Lars Eller(notes) and winger Ian Schultz(notes).

Price will be compared with Halak for the rest of his career. So far, the bar is high. Halak is 8-2-2 with a 1.79 goals-against average and .932 save percentage.

But Price is 10-5-1 with a 2.18 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. And while Halak and the Blues have cooled – Halak was pulled after allowing four goals on 15 shots Wednesday night in an 8-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the Blues are 0-2-1 in their last three games – Price and the Habs have heated up. Price has allowed only three goals during a three-game winning streak.

“I’m just a small part of this,” Price said. “Our team’s been playing well.”

But Subban called Price the Habs’ “backbone.”

“I don’t see a goalie in this league that’s better than him right now,” Subban said. “His confidence, it needs to be high right now, and if it’s not, I’m going to make sure it’s up there.”

The difference between last season and this season for Price, according to Canadiens defenseman Jaroslav Spacek(notes), is “that relief that he would be the No. 1 goalie.” Price doesn’t have to look over his shoulder at Halak, even if the sophisticated Montreal fans can check Halak’s stats on the Internet every day. You can see Price’s confidence not in the spotlight-stealing saves like the one he made with his glove Saturday night – something he called “a whole lot of luck” – but in the routine saves.

At least he makes them look routine. When Price is at his best, he makes it look easy, using his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame, setting up before the shot, absorbing the rebounds. You don’t realize how many saves he has made until you look at the shot totals. He did just that in the first period Saturday night, when the Canadiens kept taking penalties and the Hurricanes carried the play. Jussi Jokinen(notes) cut in close on a power play; Price calmly laid down his right pad. Erik Cole(notes) deflected a shot in the slot on another power play; Price anticipated it and smothered it.

“He was outstanding,” Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said.

It says something that Price was the second star on a night when the Canadiens scored seven goals, their highest total of the season.

“He’s just good,” Subban said. “He makes the saves that he has to make, and sometimes he gets a little nasty in there. He makes it look pretty sometimes. It gets me fired up.”

Before the opening faceoff at the Bell Centre, the scoreboard screens show a montage that depicts the Canadiens as comic book characters. One of the loudest cheers Saturday night was for Price – as loud as for Subban and winger Mike Cammalleri, who were playoff heroes along with Halak last season. But Price refuses to soak it up. He knows how fickle the fans are, how quickly they could turn the page and make him a villain again, how early it is in this graphic novel.

“It’s blocked out,” Price said. “The only thing that matters to me is the guys on this club.”

After the game Saturday night, Subban ran into Price in the dressing room. He gave him the same reception he did on the ice in the third period.

“Disgusting!” Subban shouted. “Clean yourself up! Take a shower!”

Subban disappeared through a doorway, but he wasn’t finished. Price couldn’t see him, but he could still hear him.

“Absolutely disgusting!”

In a good way.

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