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preseason

Carey Price returns to Bell Centre

Canadiens goalie welcomed back by fans, sharp in preseason debut

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

MONTREAL -- Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price was welcomed back to Bell Centre on Thursday with a sound that should be familiar to him by now, his first name chanted by the sellout crowd as he was announced in the starting lineup for a preseason game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"I'm definitely happy," Price said. "It's playing at home. It's a very good feeling to feel so welcomed coming back."

But it wasn't just a preseason game for fans and Price's teammates, who hadn't played in front of him since Nov. 25, 2015 when Price sprained the MCL in his right knee, ending his season.

So maybe it wasn't surprising the Bell Centre fans didn't chant Price's name again until midway through the third period, after Maple Leafs forward Zach Hyman crashed into him in the crease. The crowd hushed at first, waiting to see if Price would get up, and then roared its approval when Price administered a blocker to the back of Hyman's helmet after he lingered in his crease a bit too long.

And the chanting began again, but for Price, it wasn't any different than any other play he made in the game.

"Oh yeah, it was real serious," Price said with a grin. "No it was just for fun, let him know I'm there."

After watching the Canadiens collapse last season without Price, going 21-34-4 after his injury to miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in four seasons, it's likely going to take some time before Montreal fans feel fully at ease when they see an opposing player enter Price's crease.

Video: Shaw, Price lead Canadiens to 6-1 win

Because, as Price demonstrated throughout the Canadiens 6-1 win Thursday, he is in top form after a tremendous performance at the World Cup of Hockey 2016, leading Team Canada to a tournament championship by going 5-0-0 with a 1.40 goals-against average and .957 save percentage.

Those fans know that if Price can maintain that standard in the regular season, anything is possible for the Canadiens.

The game featured a lot of what is new in Montreal. Forward Andrew Shaw scored his first two goals with Montreal, forward Alexander Radulov had two assists and defenseman Shea Weber scored in his first game with his new team, having joined Price in helping Team Canada win the World Cup.

But the most comforting thing for the Canadiens was perhaps watching Price do his thing, making 28 saves and seemingly not breaking much of a sweat.

Defenseman Nathan Beaulieu put Price's presence in perspective when he noted how much easier it is on him when someone so adept at playing the puck is behind him. Price demonstrated this on numerous occasions, including a perfect saucer pass over the stick of Maple Leafs forward Milan Michalek and right on the tape of Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov in the second period.

The relief in Beaulieu's voice that Price was back behind him was very real.

"It was awesome. It was so nice," he said. "Especially for a [defenseman], he does so much for us that people don't see, like breaking out the puck. One shift, I went back for the puck three times and I didn't touch it. He hits the low centerman, which is tough for a [defenseman] to do. He just grabs it and throws it up the middle.

"I just kept looking back [and thought], 'Well, welcome back.' It's nice to see he didn't really miss a beat. Carey Price was Carey Price tonight."

The only shot to beat Price came off the stick of the No. 1 pick at the 2016 NHL Draft, center Auston Matthews, who used Weber as a partial screen and scored on a wrist shot high on the short side. There likely isn't a goaltender in the world who would have stopped it.

But otherwise, Price made most of his 28 saves look routine, with the possible exception of a nice blocker save on Nazem Kadri near the end of the second period.

By the end of the game, the crowd at the Bell Centre wasn't chanting Price's name. It was cheering Weber being named the game's second star and Shaw being named the first star, Price's return to the Bell Centre for the first time in nearly 11 months becoming almost an afterthought in a preseason blowout victory.

But to Canadiens players, and to Price, his presence on the ice Thursday was anything but an afterthought.

It marked the second-to-last step in Price's return from injury, a journey that took him through a long rehabilitation in an effort to salvage last season, having to wait for the World Cup last month to play a real game, and finally arriving here, the final step coming next Thursday when the Canadiens open the season at the Buffalo Sabres.

"I feel like I've prepared well enough for the season to start," Price said. "I just want to get the season going now."

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