There was a time in Carey Price's life when he thought none of this would be happening.
The starting goaltender and undisputed most valuable player of the Montreal Canadiens has lived through a lifetime's worth of experiences in his seven NHL seasons, playing what might be the most pressure-packed position in all professional sports.
Montreal is a city where anything less than elite play from the team's goaltender is not tolerated. Price's play during those seven seasons has not always met those exacting standards.
But as he prepares to lead the Canadiens into the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Price appears to have won over the city, and with good reason.
He is one of the world's best at his position, an Olympic gold medalist who is among the NHL leaders in save percentage (.927) and wins (34).
"You're probably looking at the premiere goalie in the League in Carey Price," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said earlier this month, "so everything kind of starts there with them."
GAA: 2.32 | SVP: 0.927
Selected by the Canadiens with the No. 5 pick at the 2005 NHL Draft, Price's road to Montreal glittered with gold. Tournament MVP at the 2007 IIHF World Junior Championship and 2007 American Hockey League playoffs MVP for leading the Hamilton Bulldogs to the Calder Cup, Price was handed the starting job with the Canadiens as a rookie in 2007-08.
It was a job he held until 2010, when Jaroslav Halak took it from him and proceeded to lead the Canadiens on their greatest playoff run since their last Stanley Cup in 1993, a trip to the Eastern Conference Final with Price watching from the bench.
Once Montreal was eliminated, Price met with reporters for 45 minutes and spoke openly of the lessons he had learned while watching his teammates perform in the playoffs, how it humbled him and taught him the value of hard work.
"When I was sitting on the bench there was a decision that I made," Price said repeatedly that day, "if things weren't going to work out it wasn't going to be from a lack of effort."
Except once he went home for the summer, Price had no idea if he would be putting those lessons to use in Montreal. An impending restricted free agent, Price's exit interview with management and the coaching staff left him with no assurance that he would be back, especially considering what Halak had just done.
For two weeks Price sat at home in Anahim Lake, British Columbia wondering where his career was going until one day, on June 17, 2010, he was making a sandwich in his father Jerry's kitchen when his father delivered his answer.
"I thought at the end of that season my playing career in Montreal might have been over," Price told NHL.com. "I kind of went into that summer thinking about all the possibilities of what could happen.
"Obviously when I heard the news I was ecstatic. I feel like this is the place I really want to accomplish my ultimate goal, and that's winning. I don't think there would be a greater stage to win on than here. I think it's the same stage as Canada for winning an Olympic gold medal. There's no greater feeling of satisfaction than bringing it home."
He was booed when he allowed four goals on nine shots in his first preseason game of the 2010-11 season. To this day, in spite of the mountain of evidence illustrating the Canadiens made the right decision in keeping Price, there is still a pocket of fans who don't agree, who wonder if the goalie has the mettle to not only survive in the Montreal pressure-cooker, but to thrive.
To be elite.
"He dealt with so much stuff early on," said Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges, one of Price's closest friends on the team. "First it was his demeanor in the way he plays, that he didn't work hard enough or he didn't try hard enough. Everyone was trying to find fault in him. If we lost a game, it was his fault. If we lost in the playoffs, it was his fault. Everyone blames the goalie, and no one understood how important he is to the success of this team and this organization, and how good he really is."
Price deserves some of the blame for how he was perceived in the past. He has owned up to the fact that he allowed his early success and some of the charms a city like Montreal has to offer to get to his head. Now, at the wise old age of 26, Price knows exactly what he needs to avoid to do his job at an optimal level.
"It's easy to get sucked into the wrong type of lifestyle here, there's no question about that," Price said. "There's people in this city, not everybody, but there's people in this city that want to use you. Use you for promoting something, or they just want to have you at their place and it's easy to get sucked into that type of lifestyle."
Price showed he had learned his lessons, and then some, at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, allowing three goals on 103 shots in helping Canada win gold. It was a performance which would certainly qualify for elite status, even though it was dismissed by some as being the result of the effectiveness of the team in front of him. Still, the feeling of winning was something Price had not experienced since that 2007 Calder Cup, and for someone who had grown so accustomed to it as a young goalie it was nice to have that feeling again in Sochi.
"There's no greater satisfaction than sitting in a room and spraying champagne with guys that you've worked really hard with and shared a unique experience with," Price said. "Not everybody gets to experience that. As an athlete there's no greater feeling than that, being able to sit beside a teammate and just breathe out and take it all in."
But the fact remains that Price has not won a playoff series since his rookie season, and until he does that the pocket of doubters in Montreal, and around the NHL, will likely be galvanized in their belief that he is not an elite goaltender.
And Price couldn't care less.
The biggest difference between the Price of today and the one who sat on the bench in 2010 is that he has learned to block out the external distractions, the white noise questioning his intensity, his desire or his heart, and focus on his job instead.
New goaltending coach Stephane Waite has emphasized to Price that he pour 100 percent of his energy into the task immediately before him. Price had a tendency to let allowing a soft goal bother him, often times allowing another goal shortly afterward. That tendency is gone now.
"I think my goals have been so short-term this year that it comes down to one game at a time and one shot at a time," Price said. "Simplifying that really focuses your thought process and channels it into living in the moment."
Another difference in Price is the way he communicates with the media; and, by extension, the fans. At the end of last season Price spoke openly to reporters about his life in Montreal and how he rarely leaves the house, not even to do groceries, and how he's like a "hobbit in a hole."
Price wasn't complaining about it, he was just stating a fact of his life. Regardless, those 20 minutes with reporters were dissected and analyzed the entire summer, with people openly wondering if the intense scrutiny of Montreal was getting to him, and when Price arrived for training camp in October he was still answering questions about it.
Price admits, as a result, he's now made the conscious decision not to feed the media beast anymore, becoming an intentionally bland interview in order to avoid any candid comments which will inevitably be blown way out of proportion.
“Yeah, you pull out the cliché book,” Price said. “That always seems to be the easiest answer for answering questions. There’s no controversy involved, there’s no distractions involved for the teammates. Basically it just simplifies everything.”
Price has simplified his style in net by becoming more efficient in his movement, he's simplified his public persona and he's simplified his life in general.
It's worked so far, but the biggest test for Carey Price version 5.0, or maybe it's even 6.0 at this point, remains ahead of him. It's a situation that is not so dissimilar to the one he faced on June 17, 2010, sitting in his father's kitchen making a sandwich as the future crystallized with the trade of Halak.
"I knew I was either going to stay or I was going to go," Price recalled. "So I was just kind of sitting there, he told me the news and I was like, 'OK, now I know what I have to do.'"
Four years later, as Price embarks on another playoff journey, he could make the same statement.
Price knows what he needs to do, and if he does it he will probably leave all the doubt and criticism he's faced in Montreal behind for good.