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Price followed Plante as Canadiens icon

Goalies have been backbone of Montreal teams six decades apart

by Stan Fischler / Special to NHL.com

Legendary hockey reporter Stan Fischler writes a weekly scrapbook for NHL.com. Fischler, known as "The Hockey Maven," shares his humor and insight with readers every Wednesday.

This week, Stan compares an outstanding Montreal Canadiens goalie from yesteryear, Hall of Famer Jacques Plante, with his brilliant contemporary, Carey Price.

 

Jacques Plante's name often comes up when the discussion turns to the best goalie in NHL history. Carey Price's career still has years to go, but it's not hard to make the case that Plante's six decades-removed successor as the No. 1 goalie for the Montreal Canadiens has been among the most dominating NHL players at his position for much of the past decade.

The two share a number of connections, including the fact that each became the backbone of the Canadiens during his time in Montreal. Price passed Plante to become the winningest goalie in Canadiens history when he defeated the Detroit Red Wings 3-1 on March 12, 2019, for his 315th NHL victory, all with Montreal. Afterward, he spoke to the media in the locker room at Bell Centre -- with a portrait of Plante hanging a few feet away.

Price's 348 wins may be the most in Canadiens' history, but he still has a way to go to match Plante's career total of 434.

Plante, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, enjoyed his most productive seasons with the Canadiens from 1953-63, the first decade of his NHL career. Beginning with 1955-56, he won the Vezina Trophy (then awarded to the goalie on the team that allowed the fewest goals during the regular season) five seasons in a row. Not coincidentally, the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in each of those five seasons.

"Jacques was that integral piece," said Todd Denault, author of "Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey," a 2009 biography. "It's impossible to think of Montreal winning those Cups without him."

Video: Top Goalies of All-Time: Jacques Plante

One way Plante changed the game was by coming out of his crease to play the puck, something that was rarely done until he came along.

"His teammate, Dickie Moore, told me that Plante going out to play the puck alone changed the course of the Red Wings-Canadiens rivalry," Denault wrote. "Once he came out, the opposition couldn't rough up his defensemen."

Plante had to dislodge a pretty good predecessor. Gerry McNeil seemed to be ensconced as Montreal's starter after succeeding Hall of Famer Bill Durnan in 1950 and appeared to be in his prime entering the 1953 Stanley Cup Playoffs. But he slumped in the Semifinals; Plante helped the Canadiens win the Cup, and by 1954-55, he had taken the starting job.

Like Plante, Price had to displace a veteran to take the No. 1 job. He made his NHL debut by making 26 saves in a 3-2 road victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 10, 2007, and went on to replaces Cristobal Huet, who wound up being traded to the Washington Capitals four months later. Montreal's high command liked Price's size, calmness and exceptionally effective butterfly technique.

"He was to become one of the game's most intimidating goaltenders," wrote Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News.

Price's rookie season culminated with the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Facing the archrival Boston Bruins, the 20-year-old won 1-0 in Game 4, becoming the first Montreal rookie to have a playoff shutout since Patrick Roy in 1986. He followed that with a 4-0 shutout victory in Game 7.

"The philosophy I developed was simple," Price said. "Wherever we happened to be in the standings, I took it one game at a time. You can only earn two points in one game. I prepare for each game individually."

Video: MTL@LAK: Price picks up 314th win to tie Plante

One difference between the two: Plante had a lot more idiosyncrasies.

In the early 1950s, Plante was the goalie for the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior Hockey League, a high-powered amateur league. While winning plaudits for his ability to stop the puck, Plante also earned attention because, In the cold Quebec rinks, he'd wear a toque he had knitted at home. Moore, a teammate, found it fascinating.

"Jacques also used to knit his undershirts, and he wore them and walked tall in front of everybody," Moore remembered. "I was proud of him doing that."

Moore's career with the Canadiens paralleled that of Plante's for a decade. He couldn't forget how Plante pestered coach Toe Blake into allowing him to wear a protective mask during practices. Blake was adamant that Plante could never wear a mask during an NHL game, but that changed after the goalie's play had helped the Canadiens become the first team to win the Stanley Cup four times in a row.

On Nov. 1, 1959, in a game at Madison Square Garden, Plante fouled New York's Andy Bathgate early in the game. "I decided to get even," Bathgate said. "And I did."

Bathgate's well-aimed backhand shot struck Plante smack in the face, cutting him badly. Teams didn't carry a spare goalie in those days, so Plante went back to the locker room for repairs and was ready to return to the ice -- with one condition: He had to wear a mask.

"You won't wear a mask," Blake shouted.

"Then I won't go back on the ice," Plante shot back.

While the two argued vehemently, the Garden's house goalie, Joe Schaefer, donned a Canadiens jersey and was ready to replace Plante if Blake won the argument.

"Blake knew he'd lose two points with a beer league goalie in his crease," said Joe Breu, who covered the game for United Press International. "He knew he could win with Plante, and Toe finally gave in and Jacques wore the mask."

Montreal won the game and Plante, mask and all, went on an extended winning streak. The season culminated with Montreal winning a fifth consecutive Stanley Cup championship.

"Plante deserves to be the No. 1 goaltender of all time," wrote Ken Campbell of The Hockey News, "because when you combine his stats and his stature, you have a goaltender who played at the highest level of sustained excellence.

"He revolutionized the position. Being the first to wear a mask was his most prominent innovation but there were so many more than just that."

While those Canadiens would not have been a dynasty without Plante, it's arguable that today's Montreal team would not even be a playoff team minus Price.

A good example of how intimidating Price can be was evident in this year's Stanley Cup Qualifiers. Before the length of the series was even decided, the No. 5-seeded Penguins reportedly wanted no part of the No. 12-seeded Canadiens, whose points percentage of .500 (31-31-9) was the lowest of the 24 teams to make the postseason.

Price quickly showed why the Penguins had a right to be worried. Though the Canadiens were the lowest seed in the tournament, his .947 save percentage helped Montreal eliminate Pittsburgh from the best-of-5 series in four games. He capped the upset with a series-ending shutout in Game 4.

"Nobody was giving us a prayer to beat them," Price said. "That was a motivating factor."

Price was also superb against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He allowed 11 goals in Philadelphia's six-game series victory and finished the postseason with a 1.78 goals-against average and .938 save percentage in 10 games.

Plante won the Stanley Cup six times, the Vezina Trophy seven times and was voted winner of the Hart Trophy as League MVP in 1961-62. But he was traded to the Rangers in June 1963. A few years later, he wound up with St. Louis and alternated with Glenn Hall, a longtime former foe. They formed one of the oldest combined goaltending tandems in NHL history -- but together, they teamed to win the Vezina Trophy in 1968-69 and spurred the expansion Blues to two of three straight visits to the Stanley Cup Final. Plante continued to thrive after leaving St. Louis; with the Toronto Maple Leafs as a 42-year-old in 1970-71, he led the NHL with a .944 save percentage and doubled as mentor to a young Bernie Parent.

Price, who turned 33 on Aug. 16, has no championships to his credit. But he had a season for the ages in 2014-15, winning the Vezina (best goalie), Jennings (team allowing fewest regular-season goals) and Hart (most valuable player) trophies and the Ted Lindsay Award (outstanding player as voted by NHL Players' Association members). He's still regarded by his fellow players as the game's best: In a 2017-18 NHL Players' Association annual poll, 41.0 percent named Price "the most difficult goalie in the league to score on." The category was altered to "Best Goalie" a year later, but Price continued to hold the top spot. In the 2019-20 poll, Price was No. 1 again with 41.6 percent of the votes.

He continues to get raves from those who know goaltending best.

Martin Brodeur, the winningest goalie in NHL history and now executive vice president of hockey operations for the New Jersey Devils, lauds Price's athleticism and recovery speed. "He looks really, really good and comfortable in any kind of situation," Brodeur said.

That's what they said about Plante six decades earlier. It also explains why the two have become icons in Montreal.

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