MONTREAL – There was a time in Montreal when people believed Carey Price was washed up, that the No. 5 pick in the 2005 NHL Draft was a bust, that he wasn't committed enough to become the type of elite NHL goaltender to which Canadiens fans had become so accustomed.
That time was as recently as 2010.
Carey Price was 22 years old.
Throughout that period, Price always insisted most NHL goaltenders don't hit their prime until they turn 27 or 28, that he had a lot of learning left to do and that fans needed to show some patience.
Well, as it turns out, perhaps Canadiens fans didn't need to be quite as patient as he first anticipated.
Now 25, Price appears to be entering his prime years as an NHL goaltender, a beneficiary of an accelerated development plan put in place by former general manager Bob Gainey that has resulted in the young goaltender already playing 278 regular-season games – and learning a little something from each and every one of them.
When Gainey, now an advisor with the Dallas Stars organization, handed the reins of the Canadiens net to Price as a 20-year-old in 2007, there were pundits who were highly critical of his decision. But it was done with this moment in mind.
"It definitely accelerated everything," said Price, who enters the Wednesday night game against the Boston Bruins (7:30 p.m., NBCSN, TSN, RDS) fourth in the NHL in goals-against average (1.70) and fifth in save percentage (.938). "This is my sixth season already as a 25-year-old, and there aren't too many goalies in the League that can say that, or who have had that type of experience or games played. You can't buy experience, but at the same time I think I paid a price for my experience."
That price was having to grow up in a hurry, with the fate of a storied franchise resting on his young shoulders. On top of that, Price was learning to live on his own and dealing with instant celebrity and the dangers associated with that in a hockey-mad city with a vibrant nightlife like Montreal.
"Just being able to handle different situations, handle life in Montreal and kind of getting it out of your system early as opposed to getting here in the last couple of years and going through that now," Price said. "I think that's a big difference."
Price's development was on a sharp upward curve until he was voted to start in the 2009 NHL All-Star Game in Montreal, an event that marked a drastic turning point in his career. As quickly as he had risen to those heights, he began dropping just as fast.
"At a certain point of your career you start to think you're as good as you're ever going to get, and you don't need to get better," Price said. "You start listening to people who may not really know, they'll tell you you'll win a Stanley Cup and you think, 'Yeah, I'll just do that on my existing abilities instead of improving on those abilities.' The best athletes in the world are constantly improving and trying to get better and finding techniques and ways to improve. That's one of the big things I've learned over the last few years."
Now at a relatively young age – particularly for a goaltender – Price has his life firmly established in Montreal. He has a house in the suburbs, a fiancée and a six-year, $39 million contract that ensures stability in his life.
"Through the years I've seen him gradually get to the point where he's at now," Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty said. "He's comfortable right now in Montreal. He's got his contract, he's got a house here, he's engaged – it's just a whole different setup for him. It's tough in the city when you have uncertainty in not knowing if you're going to be here a long time. Right now, he feels at home."
That stability and the wisdom he's gained during his six years in the NHL has allowed Price to concentrate all his energy on improving as a goaltender, something he will never take for granted again after seeing what happens when he let his guard down.
The extended offseason created by the Canadiens missing the playoffs last year and the lockout that followed allowed Price to follow strength and conditioning coach Pierre Allard's summer program right up until January. He arrived in Montreal in supreme physical condition, and more focused than ever.
"He took charge of things this summer and arrived here in better shape than he ever has since he turned professional," Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said. "He knew very well what my expectations were when we spoke last summer, I wanted him to raise his game to another level. And he's met my expectations in spectacular fashion.
"Before he was just a hockey player -- now he's an athlete."
There are other factors beyond simply maturity and physical conditioning that could help explain Price's strong start to the season.
The Canadiens enter Wednesday night ninth in the NHL in shots allowed per game at 27.8. Should they maintain that pace it would be the lowest number the Canadiens have allowed in Price's six years with the team, nearly two shots per game lower than the next best number, last season's 29.7 per game.
One reason for that is a vastly improved defense corps bolstered by the healthy return of Andrei Markov, giving the Canadiens three balanced pairings that ensures one of either Markov, P.K. Subban or Josh Gorges are on the ice at all times.
But Price is also on top of his game, and the easiest way to tell is his absence from most of the nightly highlight reels. That's a sign that his anticipation, his positioning and his fundamentals are all at peak form.
"You see how he moves laterally and he shuts those one-timers down like it's easy, but he makes them look easy," Canadiens captain Brian Gionta said. "When he's on top of his game it's not as flashy because he's able to cover that ice much easier … The biggest thing is it keeps us in every game. When we're struggling in parts of the game, he's a steady force back there and he allows us to be patient in our game and find it on some nights. When you don't come out of the gates with it, you're able to stay patient because he keeps you in it."
Making it look easy has another side effect on the team, because it also makes it look like Price is doing his job calmly even when circumstances would warrant some degree of panic. It's something his teammates can feed off of as well.
"You see goalies that are freaking out after a bad goal, or getting too excited after a big save. But that's why he's such a good goaltender because what's in the past is in the past, and he truly plays that way," Pacioretty said. "He plays in the moment and I think it really shows in his play this year. He's got that growing confidence, and that wears off on us and makes us want to win games for him."
The Canadiens have been doing just that, winning Price's last six starts and providing him with a level of defensive support that may be unprecedented in his career.
But the reasons for Price's early-season success begin with Price himself, and a growth process that began six years ago and that may be reaching its apex at the age of 25.
"I think I'm mentally getting there," he said. "There are still things I can improve on, but as you get older you mature, and you kind of grow up a little."
In Price's case, he has grown up quite a lot with an entire province watching -- and the finished product is looking pretty good.
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