BROSSARD, Quebec -- Another Montreal Canadiens offseason has begun with question marks surrounding goaltender Carey Price, something that seemingly has become a harbinger of spring in the city he calls home for eight months of the year.
Price was resoundingly outplayed by Ottawa Senators counterpart Craig Anderson in a five-game loss in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Anderson had a save percentage of .950 in five games; Price's was .894 in four games before a second-degree sprain of the MCL in his left knee forced him to miss Game 5 of the series.
Canadiens fans questioning their goaltender is far from a novelty, with Hall of Fame goalies Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy having generated similar doubts from the public.
But the scrutiny Price is under seems like it's at another level, perhaps because the advent of social media makes it so much easier for fans to voice their opinions. Ever since Canadiens management chose to keep Price and trade Jaroslav Halak to the St. Louis Blues just after he had led them to the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals, everything Price has done has been a source of potential criticism.
Saturday, as the Canadiens held their exit interviews and physicals, Price admitted it's an aspect of his job he's still growing accustomed to.
"When you're winning here there's no better place to play," Price said. "But when you're not playing well here it's definitely tough. But it's the only thing I know; I went straight out of junior to here. It's the only type of atmosphere I know. I've learned to accept it."
There are certain ways that being so heavily scrutinized can affect a professional athlete's life. Price, for instance, admitted he goes to great lengths to avoid getting unsolicited advice on a daily basis.
"That's one thing I miss, just being anonymous," he said. "It's tough to do that here."
Price was then asked if it was indeed tough, or impossible. He didn't hesitate to answer.
"I don't even go to the grocery store anymore. I hardly do anything anymore. I'm like a hobbit in a hole. I just don't do anything anymore."
-- Canadiens goaltender Carey Price
"It's impossible," he said. "I don't even go to the grocery store anymore. I hardly do anything anymore. I'm like a hobbit in a hole. I just don't do anything anymore."
It does take a special personality to do the job Price has signed on for, to the tune of five more years at a salary-cap hit of $6.5 million per season, making him the highest-paid player on the Canadiens, adding another level of scrutiny.
But in spite of his difficulties in handling the particularity of his work, Price recognizes that if he excels at his job, life can become a lot more comfortable in Montreal.
"It's just the way it works," Price said. "You're going to be the goat and you have to learn to accept it. When you're the hero, you're going to have to learn to deal with that too. It's easy to let your pride swing, it's easy to think you're terrible and it's easy to think you're great here. It's just something you have to manage mentally."
He said he has sought out help in that department, speaking to two of the greatest goaltenders to suit up for the Canadiens in the past 40 years.
"I talked to previous goalies, I talked with Patrick and Ken Dryden," Price said. "But I was just so awestruck that I didn't really think about what I wanted to ask them. I was too nervous. But they all know what it's like to go through this and they're very supportive. I had a long talk with Ken Dryden just about life. It's pretty cool to be able to talk with somebody you've idolized your whole life."
Price's play was not an issue for a good portion of this season. But when he and the team hit a slump after clinching a Stanley Cup Playoff berth April 11, Price's game became a focal point of discussion.
It was somewhat unfair because the team's defensive play suffered greatly when defenseman Alexei Emelin was lost for the season April 6 with a knee injury, but Price's play was far better at the beginning of the season than it was at the end.
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He appeared ready to accept some degree of responsibility for the playoff loss, but Price remains convinced he will be able to continue improving.
"We haven't won, and I honestly believe I can win a Stanley Cup," Price said. "I think I have the ability and the mentality to do that. In order to do that I need to reach another level. I'm going to need to figure out what I need to do to get to that level."
Price has always had the support of his teammates and the organization, and people from around the hockey world usually use glowing terms to describe his play. When general manager Marc Bergevin was hired last year from the Chicago Blackhawks, he mentioned he didn't know much about the Canadiens roster, but one thing he did know was that he had a good goalie.
"Carey's the anchor of this team," forward Max Pacioretty said. "We can't do anything about the fact we played against a team with probably the hottest goalie in the League the way [Anderson's] played this year. It's comparing apples to oranges. He's their best player and [Price] is our best player.
"Everyone in this room believes in Carey. He's done a great job, not just this series but his whole career. He's had to deal with a lot of pressure and face a lot of different adversity, and he's always stepped up to the challenge. He cares a lot about his game and he cares a lot about this team. Everyone has confidence he's going to keep improving."
Price, after all, is 25 years old. He's not exactly young, but for a goaltender, there is some development left for him to do. Many goaltenders don't hit their prime until they are 27 or 28, and very few netminders have been able to accomplish what Price has done at his age.
Then again, with everything he has gone through in his six NHL seasons -- the extreme highs and lows, with practically nothing in between -- Price can admit even he can sometimes forget how young he is.
"I feel older than that, to be honest," Price said with a smile. "I won't say how old, but I feel older."
Being the starting goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens tends to have that effect on people.