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After Sochi, Price has become one of League's best

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL- A year ago this week, the 2014 Sochi Olympics entered the knockout round. To celebrate, NHL.com looks at three players who used one of hockey's biggest stages to grab the spotlight and parlay their celebrity into the 2014-15 NHL season.

Today, we look at Canada goalie Carey Price, who led his team to its second straight gold medal.

When Carey Price left for the 2014 Sochi Olympics it was unclear whether he or the incumbent, Roberto Luongo of the Florida Panthers, would be the starting goaltender for Canada.

It was the one position that most of the hockey world thought was a potential weakness for the powerhouse team from Canada.

When Price returned to the Montreal Canadiens a few weeks later he did so with a gold medal hanging around his neck, having been named the top goaltender of the Olympic tournament after a 3-0 shutout against Sweden in the gold-medal game, which was played one year ago Monday.

Price stopped 103 of 106 shots in five starts in Sochi and 70 of 71 shots in three elimination games, making the pretournament chatter about Canada’s goaltending seem rather silly.

"I was pretty confident in my abilities going into the tournament," Price said. "I knew the group of players I was playing behind, I knew it was going to be a really good opportunity to win. That was the mentality that I had, and all I had to do was just do my part. Fortunately for me things went well, the team played really well in front of me, and everything was done exactly as planned."

Max Pacioretty, Price's teammate with the Canadiens but his opponent with the United States in Sochi, marveled at how little Price has changed since the Olympics, at least in terms of his personality. He is known for being quiet and reserved, his natural sense of calm making him a perfect fit for the pressure-packed position he plays every day in Montreal and the one he filled for Canada over two weeks in Sochi.

"You don't know what’s going on inside everybody's head, but I've never seen Carey be different than he is every single day," Pacioretty said. "That's what makes him so good. The best players in the world are like that, there's never any highs or any lows, and Carey's the best I've ever seen at that."

But something most definitely changed in Sochi for Price, even if his demeanor didn't. One look at the numbers makes that extremely obvious.

Prior to games Sunday, Price had by far the best save percentage in the NHL among goaltenders who played at least 1,500 minutes over the calendar year since the Olympics, according to war-on-ice.com. His mark of .935 in 58 games played since Canada’s gold medal victory on Feb. 23, 2014 easily surpasses the second goalie on the list, Craig Anderson of the Ottawa Senators, who was at .926 in 42 games.

To put that nine-point margin between Price and Anderson in perspective, there are 16 goaltenders behind Anderson on that list that fall within the same gap that separates him from Price.

Looking at the calendar year prior to the Sochi Olympics, Price had a .917 save percentage in 74 games played between Feb. 23, 2013 and the Olympic break. That was 19th among NHL goaltenders who played a minimum of 1,500 minutes, well behind the .930 save percentage of leader Josh Harding of the Minnesota Wild.

So even if Price the person didn't change a whole lot, it's pretty clear that Price the goaltender did.

"Things just started to go well. You find a zone," Price said with a shrug. "I don't know if it's just maturity or just knowing you have the ability or whatever it is, you just go out there and do your job. Obviously you need a team in front of you to play well. I totally trust the guys that are playing around me, and that's the God’s honest truth. All I worry about is making that first save, and when you're doing that it really simplifies things."

Canada's coach in Sochi, Mike Babcock of the Detroit Red Wings, admitted following the 1-0 win against the United States in the Olympic semifinal that he and his staff had to weigh the lack of big-game experience on Price's resume before deciding to go with him as the starter for the knockout portion of the tournament. But the plan was always to go with Price unless he gave them a reason not to, which he never did.

Babcock said he is not the least bit surprised to see what Price has done since then, proving the decision they made to trust him was probably more of a no-brainer than it seemed to be at the time. Babcock said last week he considers Price and Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators to be at the top of a group of elite goaltenders in the NHL, but one thing sets Price apart from the others.

"Price, for me, is the calmest of them all," Babcock said. "He's an elite, elite puck-handler. He seems to have a real good disposition. Montreal doesn't score a ton of goals and he doesn't give any up.

"When you get a quality chance from the slot, he makes it look like you never even had a chance."

That used to be a sign that Price was on top of his game, when he made difficult saves look easy. It stood out for years because of the lack of consistency Price showed over the early part of his career. Now it stands out when Price makes a highlight-reel save because he so rarely needs to, his positioning, anticipation and athleticism allowing him to get to spots well before the puck does more often than not.

That type of calm, controlled play in the crease gives the Canadiens confidence, and it aligns with one of the major changes in Price's role in Montreal since the end of the Olympics. It came about over the summer, when last season's captain Brian Gionta left as an unrestricted free agent to sign with the Buffalo Sabres.

The Canadiens did not replace Gionta, naming Pacioretty, P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov and Tomas Plekanec as alternate captains instead. But in doing so, there was an underlying sentiment that the unofficial captain of the team became Price.

He has taken a bigger role in the Canadiens dressing room as a result, not necessarily as a vocal leader because that does not fit his personality, but in the way he goes about his business and as someone his teammates can look to as an example.

Price's experience in Sochi helped in forming that persona.

"I think the biggest part of that was I played with, what, 15 captains or something on that team?" Price said. "So I got to watch firsthand how 15 captains of 15 other NHL hockey clubs conduct themselves."

Canada had seven NHL captains on the roster in Sochi: Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks, Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators, Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks, John Tavares of the New York Islanders, Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars and Martin St. Louis, who was captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning at the time. There were eight other players who are alternate captains, bringing the total number of players who wear a letter in the NHL to 15 out of the 25 players on the Canada roster.

"That was probably the coolest part, being able to watch that, watch a locker room like that," Price said. "I don't think I've ever been a part of such a confident, vocal locker room. That was probably the coolest part of the whole experience.

"It was something special to watch."

Price took what he saw and brought it back to Montreal with him, along with that gold medal and everything it entails. The positive impact it has had on the Canadiens is immeasurable, but a look at their record gives somewhat of an idea. Montreal is 52-23-7 in the regular season since the return from the Olympic break and made the Eastern Conference Final last season, losing in six games to the New York Rangers after Price was lost for the series in Game 1.

"He matured a lot," Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said of Price's Olympic experience. "Being surrounded by elite players and special players, you learn from your peers. He turned out to be a really good leader.

"He's really well respected in the dressing room because he's a winner, and you're never going to take that away from him."

NHL.com correspondent Brian Hedger contributed to this story

Author: Arpon Basu | Managing Editor LNH.com

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