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Carey Price set to return to Canadiens net

Goaltender will play against Coyotes after flu delayed return from knee injury

by Arpon Basu @arponbasu / LNH.com Senior Managing Editor

BROSSARD, Quebec -- Goaltender Carey Price makes his long-awaited return to the Montreal Canadiens at home against the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; SN360, RDS, FS-A, NHL.TV), completing an arduous journey back from a sprained MCL in his right knee that has been nearly 11 months long and was extended by a severe case of the flu.

But Price's goaltending coach, Stephane Waite, has known for far longer that his star pupil was ready to make his return to the NHL.

It happened in the first week of July, when Waite and Price went on the ice at the Canadiens' suburban training facility here and decided to put any doubt surrounding the knee behind them once and for all.

"We wanted to test his knee for good," Waite said. "We even re-did the same kind of movement [he did] when he got hurt in New York. He felt nothing. He said, 'Steph I'm fine, I'm good.' He had a good smile that day, a big smile on his face because he knew and I knew that he was fine. 
"We turned the page from there."

Waite and Price never spoke of the knee again, not even when the two of them worked together for Team Canada at the World Cup of Hockey 2016, not even when Price played his first pretournament game on Sept. 9, 9 1/2 months after his injury on Nov. 25, and looked somewhat rusty.

The injury had taken up so much space in Price's brain for so long, Waite wanted to make sure it was out of his mind as soon as it was clear the knee was completely healed. That might be why Price got irritated when he was asked about it at the World Cup, because it was a thing of the distant past for him, even if it was still current for the public that watches and covers him.

It is that mental focus that Waite believes is Price's biggest strength, which is appropriate because Price regularly credits Waite with instilling that in him.

"What's the No. 1 skill of Carey? That's a good question, because I think he's very good at everything: technically, quickness, body language, aggressiveness, everything," Waite said during training camp. "He's the whole package; how he reads the play, how he reacts to the play, how he handles the puck, everything he does he's very, very good at it.

Video: NYR@MTL: Price makes insane glove save on Nash

"But one strength, his best quality, I think is more mental. How he prepares, how he stays calm."

Price has said in the past that prior to Waite's arrival in Montreal as his goalie coach on July 4, 2013, he was often too focused on the results and not concentrating on what he needed to do to achieve those results. Waite, he says, implored Price to focus his energy on his next task and nothing else. So Price no longer took questions about the long view, insisting he is only thinking about the next game. 

A question about the Stanley Cup Playoffs in March? Next question.

"It's like climbing the stair-stepper," Price said. "Just keep looking at that next step."

It would be hard to argue with the results.

From the time the Canadiens hired Waite prior to the 2013-14 season to the end of last season, Price had a League-leading .931 save percentage (minimum 100 games played). The gap between his save percentage and runner-up Cam Talbot of the Edmonton Oilers (.924), is the same as the gap between Talbot and the 15th-place goaltender during that span (Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets, .917).

The Canadiens are often criticized as being a team that cannot succeed without Price. It is something general manger Marc Bergevin does not apologize for.

"The name doesn't matter. It's the position," Bergevin said. "It's the most important position. It's like building a house with no foundation. The goalie is the foundation. If you don't have the foundation, you're not going to win. As we know what happened last year, that foundation was not very solid."

The Canadiens were first in the NHL standings when Price was injured on Nov. 25, but went 7-20-2 in their next 29 games to fall out of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference with Mike Condon as the starter.

Bergevin made other moves to make sure that doesn't happen again, acquiring defenseman Shea Weber and forward Andrew Shaw in trades to provide leadership, signing free agent forward Alexander Radulov to improve Montreal's scoring, and adding Al Montoya as the new backup goalie. But it is Price's ability to regain his form that remains crucial.

However, in Waite's eyes, it's not a question of whether Price can remain as good as he was before, something he proved at the World Cup by going 5-0-0 with a .957 save percentage and a 1.40 goals-against average. 

No, Waite believes Price can climb even higher than his last full NHL season in 2014-15, when he won the Hart and Vezina trophies.

"Two years ago, after he won the Vezina, the whole thing, our meeting at the end of the season he said, 'I think I can be better.' That's what he wants too. He believes that," Waite said. "There are a couple of things he can be better. I won't tell you what, but we know there's a couple of things he can do better. That's what I like about Carey: He still wants to be better and he believes he can be better."

That is good news for the Canadiens, not so much for the rest of the League.

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