Don Nachbaur couldn’t help but reflect back on the cool, calm way Carey Price carried himself as a 16-year-old upon hearing the Montreal Canadiens’ goalie provide a short, to-the-point answer following his latest playoff shutout.
“It’s fun,” Price simply said with a grin in referring to the pressure of preserving a 1-0 win during a 30-save outing in Game 2 of Montreal’s second-round playoff series against Winnipeg.
As efficient in the crease as he is with his responses, Price was no different in 2003-04 during his first full season with the Nachbaur-coached Tri-Cities Americans of the Western Hockey League.
“The hockey part did all the speaking,” Nachbaur recalled.
“What really struck me was how off-the-charts calm he was when he played the game. That’s a quality you can’t teach,” he added. “He’s probably like a duck. I don’t know if he’s swimming below that surface. But he sure doesn’t show it.”
Nothing appears to be rattling the Vezina and Hart Trophy-winner in helping Montreal advance to the semifinals following a four-game sweep of Winnipeg. The Canadiens will face the winner of the West Division final, in which Vegas holds a 3-2 series lead over Colorado.
It’s a surprising run for Price and the Canadiens, who entered the playoffs considered after-thoughts following an injury- and distraction-filled season in which Montreal’s 24-21-11 record was the worst among the 16 postseason qualifiers.
Yet the Canadiens are the last Canadian team standing, and on a 7-0 run during which they’ve not trailed since 4-0 loss to Toronto in Game 4 of their first-round series. After allowing 10 goals in Montreal falling behind 3-1 to the Maple Leafs, Price has allowed just 11 since, with his steady, rebound-smothering demeanor feeding the team’s burgeoning confidence.
“He gives us a chance to win every game, always has a save that has us like, `Oh, come on,’” Phillip Danault said. “He gives us wings.”
That’s what is expected from the face of the Canadiens and team’s highest-paid player, who has on occasion been unable to deliver during his 15 seasons in Montreal.
That was especially the case this spring, when critics focused their attention on Price, who is in the fourth season of an eight-year, $84 million contract. The 33-year-old went 12-7-5 and missed much of the last month of the season with injuries, including a concussion that sidelined him for the final 13 games.
The Canadiens, however, have discovered a team-first identity, which interim coach Dominique Ducharme likens to a puzzle, with Price an invaluable piece.
“He’s our best player. And when your best player is at his top like this, whether he’s a forward or D or goalie, he’s a key part and brings confidence,” Ducharme said. “The confidence and calm that he shows really helps this team.”
Nachbaur saw Price have the same effect during his rookie season, leaving the coach little choice but give the youngster extra playing time ahead of 19-year-old Tyler Wieman, who was drafted in the third round by Colorado.
That included Price going 4-1 in a first-round playoff series win against higher-seeded Portland, before going 1-2 in a second-round series loss to eventual Memorial Cup champion Kelowna.
“I remember him single-handedly shutting down Portland’s 5-on-3 power play,” Nachbaur recalled. “Not only was he making saves from post to post, but he was burying guys in front of the net. And I was standing behind the bench going, `Wow.’”
Mike Babcock had a similar experience with Price while coaching gold medal-winning Team Canada at 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
“We practiced a 5-on-3, but we practiced it with no penalty killers because we didn’t want anyone to take a rocket off their foot. Well, we couldn’t score on him,” Babcock said. “I’ve never seen anything like that, that kind of size, that kind of read of the game, that kind of skating ability and that kind of ability for the puck to stick to him.”
Price allowed three goals over five games in Sochi, closing with shutouts in the semifinal and championship rounds. He provided yet another memorably concise answer when asked about the gold medal hanging from his neck: “It sure is heavy.”
Former Canadiens captain Brian Gionta insists Price is more outgoing in private, while noting his intensely focused public persona is a reflection of the goalie’s drive and leadership.
“You think he’s super quiet, but there were times throughout the years when he would get animated,” he said. “And then you knew it was that switch of, `Ok, we’ve got to be better. We’ve got to smarten up.’”
The most important aspect of Price’s approach is an ability to tune out outside attention, especially in a ultra hockey-focused market such as Montreal, home to 24 Stanley Cup championships but none since 1993.
“Nothing fazes him,” Gionta said.
Price is a six-time NHL all-star, and earned MVP and top goalie honors in 2014-15, when he finished 44-16-6 with a 1.96 goals-against average.
The one thing missing is playoff success: Price is 38-39 overall, and has matched a career-best in winning eight games this postseason.
He also won eight in helping the Canadiens reach the 2014 Eastern Conference finals before being sidelined by a right knee injury in Game 1 of the series against the New York Rangers. Montreal lost the series in six, with Dustin Tokarski taking over in net.
This postseason represents a second chance for Price, something forward Brendan Gallagher said inspires the Canadiens.
“I’ve spent nine years with him, I’ve seen what he’s gone through, what he deals with every single day,” Gallagher said. “Those are the teammates you want to play for and want to win for. There’s not a single guy here that doesn’t feel the same way.”