Last year's disappointment at root of Price's success
The 2010-11 season is already full of intriguing story lines, but at the quarter mark of the campaign, standout performances by goaltenders certainly deserve top billing. This week, NHL.com focuses on some of those goalies in the spotlight, from the amazing first impression of Philadelphia's Sergei Bobrovsky and Washington's Michal Neuvirth to the redemptions of Montreal's Carey Price and Boston's Tim Thomas and the continued stellar play of Detroit's Jimmy Howard.
MONTREAL – While Jaroslav Halak was charming the entire hockey world this past spring by hoisting the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens on his back and leading them to the Eastern Conference Finals, no one had a better seat from which to watch the coronation than Carey Price.
The one who was once considered a can't-miss prospect, who was supposed to be the latest in a long line of dominant goalies for the Canadiens, was sitting on the bench as an unheralded goalie from Slovakia stole his spotlight and the hearts of the team's fans.
The chosen one had become the forgotten one.
When all was said and done -- after Montreal's Cinderella run ended against Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Finals -- it was clear to everyone that the Canadiens would be forced to choose between the playoff hero and the supposedly washed-up 22-year-old wunderkind.
Most everyone in the hockey world figured it would be Price, and not Halak, who would be forced to change addresses during the summer.
But while Halak's success blinded the outsiders, those inside the equation saw in Price a young man growing up, seeing his own professional mortality, and responding to the biggest wake-up call of his career.
"When I was sitting on the bench there was a decision that I made," Price said the day after the Canadiens were eliminated from last season's playoffs, "if things weren't going to work out it wasn't going to be from a lack of effort."
Price has put in that effort, and then some, in leading the Canadiens to a rocket start out of the gates this season, starting 22 of Montreal's first 24 games and converting the fans who were waiting -- almost hoping -- to see him fail out of loyalty to Halak, who was shipped to St. Louis in a summer blockbuster.
The pressure to perform in Montreal is always great and it's exponentially greater for a goalie wearing the Canadiens' sweater. Usually, the pressure comes from lofty expectations of success. For Price, it was coming from a fan base divided by a faction hoping for his failure; likely a first in the long and storied history of the franchise.
Yet that was exactly what Price walked into this season when he arrived at training camp as the unchallenged No. 1 goalie for the first time in his career. He faced the situation head on.
"I've never been one to back away from a challenge," Price said in September just prior to camp. "It's not my personality, it's not the way I am. I'm not going to cower away from anything."
It didn't help that Price allowed four of the first nine shots he faced in the preseason to get past him, triggering a now infamous -- and frankly comical -- chorus of boos to rain down on him at the Bell Centre.
The next day, Price told the fans to "just chill out," ruffling a few feathers at the time. But, he's backed it up with his play from Day 1 of the regular season, going 14-7-1 record, 1.95 goals-against average, .935 save percentage and four shutouts. He ended November leading the League in wins and shutouts, third in save percentage and fourth in GAA.
And some of the fans that were booing him now have made him the goaltending leader in All-Star Fan balloting, despite Price not being on the ballot. When the NHL revealed the totals Nov. 29, Price had received the most write-in votes and was second among all players to Sidney Crosby.
Coach Jacques Martin said the uniqueness of Price's situation this season has factored into the heavy workload he has heaped upon the goalie in the season's first quarter. Simply, Martin wanted his goalie to get off to a good start and build his confidence.
In reality, there was never any doubt in the coach's mind of how Price would perform.
"I felt last year was a tremendous growth for Carey Price," Martin said. "It may be difficult to understand, and probably himself he had a tough time believing what was happening to him was going to be good for the future of his career.
"It's showing this year. Maturity, attitude, composure. All those components have been a key part of his success."
Price has admitted his quick rise to stardom led to complacency on his part; a feeling he had made it and didn't need to work for success any longer. Watching Halak not only catch up to him, but eventually leave him in his dust, had an undeniable effect on Price.
And it's a lesson he intends to continue learning from as this season moves along, no matter how much success may come his way.
"I'm just not going to take it for granted this year, I'm going to keep working at it," Price said. "We want to keep winning and keep doing it all year. We don't want it to be a short phase."
If you listen closely to that last phrase, you will see just how far Price's maturity level has come. He used the word "we" to signify his team and, in the process, highlighted what may the single biggest improvement Price has made during his soul- searching – becoming a better teammate.
It was something he learned while spending two months on the bench supporting another goalie's success last spring, and it's paying big dividends for the Canadiens now.
"They say you can't buy experience," Price said, "and it's really true."