MONTREAL - During a TV time out in the Montreal Canadiens' 4-0 win over New Jersey this week, rookie goalie Carey Price went to the team bench and asked his teammates, "Why don't we go play in their end for a bit?"
Defenceman Josh Gorges offered that vignette as an example of the low-key humour and growing confidence of the gifted goaltender from Williams Lake, B.C., who looks to have grown in stature since the No. 1 job was thrust upon him after the Canadiens dealt veteran Cristobal Huet to Washington at the NHL trading deadline on Feb. 26.
Since then, Price is 5-2-0 with only 15 goals against - nearly half of them during his only weak outing, a 6-4 loss in San Jose on Mar. 3.
"He had a big smile on his face," added Gorges. "He's relaxed. He's calm. He doesn't change his attitude or perspective no matter what the score is."
Price's 38-save shutout, his second in 33 games this season, helped the Canadiens jump over New Jersey into first place in the Eastern Conference.
He'll have another test Thursday night as the Canadiens play host to the Ottawa Senators, who are 4-1-0 against Montreal this season, although Price only started one of the games, a 4-3 loss on Oct. 18. A win would put Ottawa into a tie with Montreal with 87 points.
The Huet trade was a shock to many in Montreal, leaving the club with a pair of rookie goalies heading into the homestretch of the playoff race. General manager Bob Gainey said it was made to make room on the NHL roster for Jaroslav Halak, who had spent most of the season with Hamilton of the AHL.
But it also showed supreme confidence in Price, even though the 20-year-old had needed a short stint in Hamilton himself in January when he lost his bearings in the net.
"There were a few things I had to work on," Price said. "Puck tracking and footwork.
"It's made a difference."
Since he was called up, Halak won his only start 5-2 in Los Angeles on Saturday, but Price has the No. 1 job.
"It's fun to play a lot," he said. "I'm used to playing a lot of minutes, so it's nice to do it here."
Price's career has rocketed upward in the last 18 months.
He was a star goalie for Tri-City in junior hockey and led Canada to gold at the 2007 world junior championships. He joined Hamilton after the WHL season was over and then led the Bulldogs to an AHL title, taking the award for MVP of the playoffs.
Then he made the Canadiens straight out of camp and now he's the starter.
"Carey's in a class of his own," said winger Bryan Smolinski. "He's very big (six-foot-three). He takes up a lot of net.
"He's got a long way to go with this team because he's so young. But you see the way he carries himself - he's a happy-go-lucky kid and he's having success. He's fun to be around. He's always cracking jokes."
Coach Guy Carbonneau said Price looks more relaxed since Huet left.
"He knows he's getting a chance to be No. 1 and it's easier for him to concentrate," said Carbonneau. "They had a good relationship, but he knew that Cristobal was our guy.
"Now, it's Carey's time. It's different pressure."
Price is not the only rookie to cause surprises this season.
Winger Sergei Kostitsyn also turned heads while setting up goals by Saku Koivu and Michael Ryder against New Jersey. The 20-year-old brother of winger Andrei Kostitsyn was called up in mid-season and handed a job on what is referred to as the No. 1 line with Koivu and Christopher Higgins. He has nine goals and 14 assists in 41 games.
"I feel more comfortable every game," said Kostitsyn, who spent last season with London in the OHL playing with linemates also making their marks as NHL rookies - Chicago's Patrick Kane and Edmonton's Sam Gagner.
Still another rookie, Ryan O'Byrne, gets to play on the second defence pair with Roman Hamrlik, although he occasionally sits out when veteran Patrice Brisebois is in the lineup.
Carbonneau is impressed with them all.
"The consistency they're shown over the season is incredible," he said. "You expect guys to come up and have a lot energy in a short burst, but they've been very consistent.
"It's a credit to (Hamilton coach) Don Lever. They know how to play the game."
The Canadiens also have a group of second-year players that includes Andrei Kostitsyn, Guillaume Latendresse and Maxim Lapierre, and also have recent call-up Mikhail Grabovski on hand.
"There's a good group of us young guys who aren't married, so we hang out together and watch movies and things," said O'Byrne. "It's a pretty tight group."
Despite all that youth, the Canadiens are tied with Ottawa for the league lead in goal-scoring, each with 227 for the season.
But while the Senators are defending conference champions, few picked Montreal even to make the playoffs.
They have begun to open eyes, including those of Anaheim GM Brian Burke.
"I think them and Carolina are the two fastest teams in the league," said Burke. "I think Carey Price is for real.
"That's a good team. They have a good coach. Yeah, I think they're for real."