Day one of the Canadiens' training camp had just ended and, as usual, reporters swarmed Carey Price’s dressing-room stall.
Asked about his objectives for the season, the goalie diverted from the usual “win a Stanley Cup... improve every day.... become a better player" lines heard all the time.
“I’ve only been to the second [playoff] round myself, so that is the next step,” Price said. “The playoffs are a grind, it’s not just myself personally, we all have to take it upon ourselves to take the next step.”
After making it to the NHL at age 20, Price reached the second round in his rookie season in 2008, then was ousted in the first round in his next three playoff appearances (2009, 2011 and 2013). During Montreal’s run to the Eastern final in 2010, Price was mostly a spectator while Jaroslav Halak turned water into wine.
Now under the tutelage of two-time Stanley Cup champion goaltending coach Stéphane Waite, Price has the right guy guiding him toward that next step, and the goalie made a big move in that direction with a clutch performance on Tuesday night.
While his team put forth a disappointing effort in Tampa Bay, Price carried them, making big save after big save in a game where Montreal could have clinched a playoff berth with a win.
It wasn't enough to prevent a loss to the Lightning, but the Canadiens got their playoff spot anyway, thanks to losses by the Washington Capitals and the New Jersey Devils.
Back from the wreckage
With the Canadiens now fighting to win home-ice advantage for the first round (they're likely to face Tampa Bay), it’s easy to forget that the bleu-blanc-rouge looked like a train wreck two months ago.
Back on Jan. 25, the Capitals stomped a mud hole in the Canadiens, winning 5-0. That was Montreal's fifth loss in six games, a stretch during which it allowed 27 goals. The Habs were hanging on to one of the two Eastern Conference wild card spots, with six teams within five points of each other.
After the game, the team held a players-only meeting. When the dressing room opened to the media, every player remained to take questions, rather than just the usual post-loss spokesmen, Josh Gorges and Brian Gionta.
Three days later, Price stopped 36 shots on his way to a 3-0 shutout of Carolina. That was the beginning of a six-game stretch in which the former first-round pick surrendered just seven goals. Just like that, the Canadiens' fortunes turned, and the Olympic break became less nerve-wracking.
Montreal returned from the break to find that Price was hurt, having played through a lower-body injury while anchoring Canada to the gold medal in Sochi. In eight games without Price, the Habs managed a 3-4-1 record, with none of the victories coming in regulation.
When he returned, Montreal escaped with a controversial 5-4 overtime win against the Senators, the first of eight wins in a nine-game stretch that propelled the Canadiens into a solid playoff position.
Price has taken some big-boy steps this season, with his near-perfect Olympic performance standing out as a possible breakthrough moment. But being the competitor he is, it’s hard to imagine he’ll take any satisfaction if he can’t help the Habs make the next step and erase the bad playoff memories from last spring.
This week’s numbers
10 — Goals, of the Habs’ last 10, that have been scored at even strength. They still sit 28th in the NHL in 5-on-5 tallies, but Thomas Vanek’s arrival obviously hasn’t hurt.
28 — Minor penalties by Lars Eller this season, tying him with Brendan Gallagher for second on the Canadiens. While Gallagher’s overflow of energy around the net also helps his team score goals, it’s hard to find any offensive upside in Eller’s play lately.
+7 — Defenceman Mike Weaver’s rating in the last 10 games, despite his playing mostly with offensive black hole Douglas Murray. The Weaver trade is looking better and better for general manager Marc Bergevin, as he gave up only a fifth-round pick.