Price answers numerous questions in win against U.S.by Arpon Basu
SOCHI -- Carey Price had never played in a game of this magnitude in his life. Not even close.
Perhaps the gold-medal game of the 2007 IIHF World Junior Championship would rank up there. But as a professional, the closest the Montreal Canadiens goaltender has come to playing a game anywhere near as important as the 2014 Sochi Olympics semifinal were two Game 7s (against the Boston Bruins in 2008 and 2011) in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Price finally found himself on that rather enormous stage Friday against the United States, the same country he beat on his way to winning the gold medal at the 2007 WJC. And he looked as though he was made for the moment.
Price made 31 saves to backstop a 1-0 Canada win, fighting through traffic and screens to keep some early U.S. chances from going in and remaining sharp the rest of the way as his teammates began to carry the play for longer stretches.
"I'm really excited," an overwhelmed Price said. "I'm just soaking in this moment right now. It's fun. This is the whole reason we play this sport. We believe it's the best sport in the world, and it's truly rewarding if you put in the work."
Price has done that, and then some.
He's been booed on home ice. He's watched as his backup goalie, Jaroslav Halak, not only took his job in 2010, but led the Canadiens farther in the playoffs than they had been in 17 years and became the toast of Montreal before being traded to the St. Louis Blues.
On the ice, Price has reinvented himself as a goaltender numerous times through his career, but perhaps never more than this season under his third goaltending coach with the Canadiens, Stephane Waite. He crouches lower in his stance to make him more athletic and better able to explode from one post to the other. His rebound control has improved. His decision-making is better.
He is taking hockey seriously.
"I've played in front of lots of good goalies, but today he was great," Canada defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. "He's so calm. Nothing really fazes him, even the chances they did have he made some good saves. He just was never really out of position, and I think when you watch him, that's impressive."
Despite the obvious improvements in his game this season, it would be impossible for Canada coach Mike Babcock and his staff to know just how Price would react in the cauldron of pressure the Bolshoy Ice Dome became Friday night. There simply wasn't a case history to go by.
Jonathan Quick, Price's American counterpart who was spectacular Friday, has played 38 playoff games in the past two seasons. Price has played 30 in his entire career, and has never started a game past the second round.
No, Price's reaction to what he faced Friday was an unknown when he led Canada onto the ice at Bolshoy.
He passed with flying colors.
"If we were to think about that result and visualize it at the start of the day," Price said, "we'd say 'mission accomplished.'"
Babcock admitted that he and the coaching staff spent a considerable amount of time discussing Price's lack of big-game experience. Considering Price's backup, Roberto Luongo, won Canada the gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, it was a fair debate to have.
But ultimately, Babcock felt Price had proven enough to warrant this chance.
So far, so good.
"I thought he was great," Babcock said. "It's like anything; you build a resume over time in your career, whether you're a coach or whether you're a writer or whether you hold a camera. You build a resume and it gives you confidence. He's done that over time.
"He's a guy who I think is big and square and soft. He gives your team confidence. I thought he played real good tonight."
So good, in fact, that the goaltender whose job he stole took to Twitter immediately after the game to express what he thought of Price's performance.
JESUS PRICE!!!!— Strombone (@strombone1) February 21, 2014
So now Price goes from the biggest game of his career to an even bigger match against Sweden on Sunday, with Olympic gold the reward.
He will face one of the world's best in Henrik Lundqvist and will need to anchor a penalty killing unit facing the top power play in the tournament.
It will be another test for Price, except this time there will be no questions regarding his ability to handle the grandeur of the stage.
All those questions were answered Friday against the U.S.