MONTREAL -- As the race for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender became more and more of a two-man derby, the game Tuesday at Bell Centre between the Nashville Predators and the Montreal Canadiens was looking like it could be a showdown between those leading men.
An injury to Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne prevented that from happening. But someone forgot to tell Carey Price.
The Canadiens' goaltender returned from a one-game absence due to injury to make 36 saves in a 2-1 overtime win against the Predators. In the process, Price made a convincing case for why he might be the Vezina frontrunner instead of his injured rival.
When the Predators scored at 12:10 of the second period on a Mike Ribeiro deflection directly in front of Price, Nashville was outshooting Montreal 26-6 but led 1-0. At one point the Canadiens went 22:15 without forcing Predators goalie Carter Hutton to make a single save.
It was an extreme example of a problem that has plagued the Canadiens for much of the season, allowing teams to control large stretches of games but winning anyway because Price gave them a chance.
It is that tendency that makes Price's remarkable season to date that much more impressive.
"As a goaltender you want to be put in those spots; you want to be the guy that helps your team win, you want to be the guy that gives your team a chance to win," Price said. "I'm just trying to do my part."
It's a pretty big part.
Price often faces questions following games like this about how he had to bail his teammates out. He faces them often because games like this happen often. He was asked Tuesday if he ever feels like a lawyer for his teammates considering how often he defends them in the dressing room post-game.
"My mom's a lawyer, so …," was Price's initial response before trailing off. "More often than not there's always guys making contributions. We're not going to play perfect every game, we're not going to be able to outplay a team 60 minutes every game. Every team is competitive in this League, we understand that. As long as we can rope-a-dope a little bit when we're not playing well and stay in games, at least we give ourselves the opportunity to get that big goal and start grabbing the momentum. We've been able to do that so far this year."
The narrative that Price is the only reason the Canadiens enter the All-Star break with a 29-13-3 record, fourth-best in the Eastern Conference, is one that has gathered steam as the season has gone along. Price obviously disagrees with it, but defenseman P.K. Subban made it clear he has heard that talk and doesn't like it, either.
"There's always going to be a story about our team, but at the end of the day we're one of the top teams in the League," Subban said, somewhat defiantly. "I'm sure [Price] will tell you this, it doesn't take one player to be a top team in the League. We need 22 guys. I wouldn't want all the pressure of being the guy that's supposed to take our team to the Stanley Cup. You watch the Stanley Cup Playoffs every year; it's not about one or two players. It's about 22 guys. He'll be the first one to tell you that. I've known him for a long time. He just wants to do his job, and that's all we ask of him."
Price's job is often made more difficult by what he sees in front of him.
Price has faced the fourth most shots in the NHL entering the break, 25 more than Rinne despite having one fewer start. He sees an average of 29.9 shots per game, more than the three goalies ahead of him for most shots against. The Canadiens are not a strong possession team and spend more than half the game in their own zone, as opposed to the Predators, a top-10 possession team.
Goalie - MTL
GAA: 2.15 | SVP: .929
Yet Price thrives regardless.
"Shots on net are cosmetic a lot of the time," he said.
That may be true when you're Carey Price, but for most goalies shots on net are far more significant.
They are significant for the players in front of Price as well. Consistently getting outshot the way the Canadiens do only to have Price rescue them can have a mental impact on his teammates as it becomes clear that he is pulling more weight than they are. Forward Max Pacioretty expressed that frustration in no uncertain terms Tuesday.
"It wasn't our best hockey and that's not the way we want to play," Pacioretty said. "Obviously you want to feel good about a win, but it doesn't feel that good in the room right now."
Pacioretty suggested that perhaps the Canadiens feel overconfident with Price in goal and that their game suffers as a result.
"I don't know. I hope not," Pacioretty said when asked if he really felt there was some truth to that theory. "We put together a great game in front of [backup goalie] Dustin [Tokarski] last game [a 6-4 win against the New York Islanders on Saturday], and as soon as Carey comes back and we had a couple of days off, there's no excuse for a start like that. I hope that's not the case."
When Price heard that Pacioretty didn't feel good about the victory, he had trouble understanding why. He was actually baffled by it.
"I love winning," Price said. "Winning's the best thing.
"Winning's a lot better than losing, that's all I've got to say about that."
It was an appropriate statement, because Price has had the last word on more than his fair share of Canadiens victories this season.