BROSSARD, Quebec -- Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price returned to practice Wednesday for the first time this month, earning a round of applause from his teammates around the pre-practice stretching circle.
Suffice it to say the Canadiens were relieved to see their best player back on the ice with them.
"He's such a big part of our team, when he's out there the guys get a boost," Canadiens forward Dale Weise said. "He's probably our biggest leader in this locker room; everyone just gets excited when you see him out there."
It is not yet known when Price, who has missed the past eight games with a lower-body injury, will be ready to play, but it won't be Thursday at home against the Arizona Coyotes.
Coach Michel Therrien said Mike Condon will start against the Coyotes. The Canadiens then play Friday at the New York Islanders and Sunday at home to the Islanders. It is not clear if Price would be available for any of those games.
"As I said when he was first injured, when he feels ready, not only physically but in terms of being able to perform, he'll let us know," Therrien said. "Right now it's a bit too early to say."
Price sustained the injury in a 4-3 loss at the Edmonton Oilers on Oct. 29. He dressed as the backup to Condon at the Calgary Flames one night later and the Canadiens announced he was injured on Nov. 1.
The Canadiens have gone 5-1-2 in the eight games since Price was injured, with Condon starting each of those games and posting a .918 save percentage, though he has allowed 10 goals in going 1-1-1 in his past three starts.
"[Condon] really allowed me to take my time and get well," Price said. "He played very valiantly over the last two weeks. He played very well, and that was a very good sign. I've been saying it all along, this team isn't just about me."
That notion, that Price is the lone reason for the Canadiens success, is something he has refuted time and again. But his teammates were more reluctant to talk about it in the past.
Last season an argument could have been made that the notion was true, with Price winning the Vezina and Hart trophies as well as the Ted Lindsay Award as the NHL's most outstanding player, with voting conducted by his NHL peers. The Canadiens were a poor offensive team that was outshot on a regular basis but managed to squeak out wins based largely on Price's goaltending.
The same can't be said this season, but that stigma lingered.
"If you're on the team and you talk [to the media] everyday, you get the sense that's what's being said and that's what people genuinely felt," Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty said. "He's our best player, he's on the ice for 60 minutes a game, and it almost felt like people felt we should not play him or it was an unfair advantage that he was on our team.
"He's our best player and we're so thankful to have him, but it gave us a bit of extra motivation. We knew we were going to have to play a little bit better in his absence. We got some great goaltending from [Condon] and hopefully we can keep going that way and playing the right way. But it was definitely motivation, especially for me personally. I felt it."
In a way, Price's absence could almost be seen as a blessing for the Canadiens, who have learned to be confident in their own abilities regardless of who is in net. They entered play Wednesday second in the NHL in goals per game (3.53), first in shots on goal per game (31.8), fourth in power-play percentage (23.9 percent) and have a 14-3-2 record through 19 games, with Price not starting 10 of those 19 games.
A similar scenario would have been unthinkable a season ago.
"I think it's given us confidence in this room, mostly, that we're able to out-chance, out-shoot and outplay opponents," Pacioretty said. "That's a good feeling moving forward in the season. But I think when we get rolling and as the season rolls on, you trust the system and I think we feel confidence in our game in all areas."
The last time Price missed a significant amount of games for the Canadiens was after he won gold with Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He missed Montreal's first eight games after the Olympic break and the Canadiens went 3-4-1 in his absence, with Peter Budaj and Dustin Tokarski combining to allow 28 goals. In the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Price was injured in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers, and the Canadiens lost the series in six games with Tokarski in net.
There is no doubt the Canadiens are a much better team with Price in net. But the way they handled his absence this time as compared to the last time shows the Canadiens are a much better team in front of Price.
"I think the guys earned a lot of credibility. A lot of respect," Therrien said. "This is a team that has matured. We have a better understanding of how we want to play, and that's all part of the process. It's not the same group, and what I mean is that it's not the same group in terms of the level they are at. They've learned a lot from the playoffs, playing in big games. So we're not in the same situation we were in two years ago."