Keep calm and Carey on: Supercool Price stands tall in scalding spotlight
This story appeared in the May 4, 2015 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Once content with merely building their brand, the upwardly mobile Canadiens, now in the second round of the NHL playoffs, are building a condominium high-rise, the Tour des Canadiens, adjacent to their arena, on land once known as Centennial Plaza. The statues of Les Habitants legends—Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Jean Béliveau and Guy Lafleur—all gilt-edged forwards, which hardly seems like a coincidence. Although the 24-time Stanley Cup franchise has been backstopped by some of the best and most influential goaltenders in league history—Jacques Plante, the first goalie to routinely play the puck; Ken Dryden, the prototype of the modern big goalie; Patrick Roy, who ushered in the butterfly era— there is a substantial gap between having stature and having a statue in a city that generally views goalies with a jaundiced eye. Montreal goalies are more likely to be scalded than bronzed.
“A goalie is more able to be a hero because of his potential impact on a game, and being a goalie in Montreal can be very heroic,” Dryden says. “But is it easy being a goalie in Montreal? No, it’s hard.”
Carey Price merely is making it look easy, an optical illusion not unlike the current edition of the Canadiens. Speaking recently to CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge, Dryden, who won six Cups in eight seasons with Montreal from 1970 to ’79, suggested that he had been a good goalie on great teams while Price is a great goalie on a very good team, an assessment that is both self-effacing and overstated. The Canadiens ice a competent group of skaters—including 37-goal scorer Max Pacioretty and Norris Trophy–caliber defenseman P.K. Subban—but Price is the safety net in the net, especially for Subban’s dizzying high-wire act. “[Price] is like an editor back there,” Dryden says. “P.K.’s trying stuff on a blank screen, and Price is protecting him from his worst self. Of course a big save is not really a big save unless it’s followed by a big goal, and there are few big-goal generators on that team like Subban. They truly need each other.” Subban happily acknowledges the debt to his friend but demurs when asked if Montreal is a middling team with otherworldly goaltending. “I think we’re a good team,” he says. “We were first in our division not because of just one player. [Carey] stole games, but we play with structure and within our system.”
The system. The Canadiens, last among the 16 playoff teams in regular-season scoring, were 23rd in the NHL in five-on-five shot-attempt differential. Seen through the filter of advanced statistics, the system, which helped Montreal tie the Blackhawks for the fewest goals-against, is played by a team with unprepossessing puck possession and shot--suppression numbers, and a goalie who led the league with 36.70 goals saved above average. (Translation: Price saved almost 37 more goals than the average NHL goalie would have, given the same workload.) His old-fangled numbers look just as good: He had a franchise-record 44 wins and led the NHL with a .933 save percentage and a 1.96 goals-against average. Price stopped 186 of 198 shots in the Canadiens’ six-game first round defeat of the Senators, winning three one-goal games. In Montreal’s series-clinching win on Sunday, he made 43 saves in a white-knuckle 2–0 shutout. While teams market T-shirts with playoff slogans—the Islanders’ LET’S MAKE HISTORY. ONE MORE TIME.—the Canadiens should ditch GO HABS GO for ROLL THE DICE WITH PRICE.
In a postseason in which nine teams have already used two goalies, Price stood tall against Ottawa (five of the Senators’ 12 goals came on the power play, and one of the even-strength scores was an own goal by Montreal defenseman Andrei Markov), although not quite as tall as he once did. Price is 6' 3", but his work the last two seasons with goalie coach Stéphane Waite has him bending more at the waist, which allows him to better track pucks. According to Patrick Lalime, the former goalie and now a Canadiens analyst for TVA Sports, Price has also started tilting his shoulders forward and holding his glove an inch farther in front, obscuring openings for shooters. His puck stopping is nearly impeccable, he absorbs shots and rarely leaves greasy rebounds, and his puckhandling is first-rate, even if he makes the occasional curious decision about when to do it. “He always knows where [his outlets] are,” Ottawa goalie coach Rick Wamsley says. “And his hockey sense is fantastic. He’s one of those guys who could be a forward.”
“The way he’s playing now, Price is probably the first goalie since [six-time Vezina Trophy winner and two-time MVP Dominik Hasek] to actually intimidate shooters,” says TSN analyst Martin Biron, who was Hasek’s backup with the Sabres in the late 1990s. The six-by-four-foot net seems to shrink behind Price. With the score tied 1–1 some 100 seconds into overtime in Game 3, Pacioretty made a whisper-soft pass in his own zone that was intercepted by Mark Stone, the Senators’ most dangerous forward. From the inside edge of the right circle, Stone wound up and unleashed a slap shot that screamed 25 feet and died an honorable death in the glove of Price. Seven minutes later Montreal’s Dale Weise scored the winner to put the Canadiens up 3–0 in the series. The goalie had not merely stopped the potential series-altering shot, he had defied it. “Il change les données,” Lalime says in French. Literally, he changes the data; he changes the equation.
In the Rangers’ dressing room Mats Zuccarello occasionally will play dress-up. The New York winger will put on a mask and a glove and grab a big goalie stick and stop tennis balls, balled-up wads of hockey tape or whatever his teammates shoot at him. Then he will suddenly stop and amble around his makeshift net like a man taking his dog for a stroll on a lazy Sunday. Zuccarello’s impersonation draws appreciative laughs. Like a Christopher Walken, almost anyone can do a passable Carey Price.
Price is 27, but he’s still the coolest kid on the ice. During the national anthems, when other starters are fidgeting—Subban looks like a wind-up toy—the goalie is a still life. Even early in his career, when he sometimes battled his emotions and the expectations that came with being the fifth player drafted in 2005 and an All-Star Game starter at 21, Price displayed a nonchalance that inspired and unnerved.
“[In juniors] he was a phenomenal talent and a very competitive guy, but his demeanor was so casual he might get beaten from a bad angle because he didn’t think the other guy could score,” says former goalie Olaf Kolzig, the Capitals’ professional development coach and a co-owner of the WHL’s Tri-City Americans, Price’s junior team. “But it’s that demeanor that makes him the perfect person to play that position in that city. Being a goalie for the Canadiens is like pitching for the Yankees or playing quarterback for the Cowboys. There’s a pedigree in the organization, and you’re always under the microscope. But things just roll off Carey’s back.”
In Montreal, Price, who was raised in rural British Columbia, has had to master the Gallic shrug. He was most sorely tested when not being tested at all, while on the bench for the playoffs in 2010 when Jaroslav Halak usurped his job and helped the Smurf-like Canadiens reach a conference finals for the first time in 17 years. Although teams approached the Canadiens about Price’s availability after the season, Pierre Gauthier, then the general manager, traded Halak to the Blues before the draft. In Montreal’s exhibition opener against the Bruins that September, Price allowed four goals on 10 shots and was booed at the Bell Centre. After the game a bemused Price said, “Relax, chill out. . . . We’re not winning the Stanley Cup in the first exhibition game.”
One of the rare times that his veneer cracked in public—teammates say he might break a stick in the sanctity of the dressing room after a wrenching loss—was in 2013, after Ottawa had eliminated the Canadiens in the first round. “That’s the one thing I miss, being anonymous,” Price told reporters as he cleaned out his locker. “I don’t even go to the grocery store anymore. I hardly do anything anymore. I’m like a hobbit in a hole.”
His journey from Middle Earth to the summit of the goaltending world detoured through Sochi nine months later. Subban calls the 2014 Olympics a defining moment for his Team Canada teammate. Price allowed just three goals in five games as Canada won its second straight gold medal. From the opening win against Norway in Sochi through the clinching victory over the Senators in Montreal last Sunday, Price stopped 2,785 of 2,984 competitive shots—a save percentage of .933—while winning 12 of 18 NHL playoff games and three elimination matches. If he had not missed the 2014 Eastern Conference finals after suffering an injured right knee when the Rangers’ Chris Kreider bowled him over in Game 1, the Canadiens might have played for the Cup. Subban says, “I really think he’s figured out who he is”—beyond cool as sundown of course—“and how he wants his teammates to see him.” This might not be as precise a measure of Price as an advanced stat, but he and his wife, Angela, hand out candy on Halloween at their suburban Montreal home. The hobbit is out of the hole.
Against Ottawa in Game 2, Mika Zibanejad barged into the slot on a Senators power play. While being checked to the ice, he shoveled a shot on goal. “If the best goalie in the world has to make two or three tough saves a game, O.K.,” Subban says. This was one of them. Price had tried a pokecheck but missed. As the puck headed toward the far post, the goalie, on all fours, flicked his right foot, like a flipper on a pinball machine, and propelled the puck out and to his left, away from imminent danger. A pinball wizard. Renowned for making hard saves look easy, Price had made an impossible save look merely hard.
“I just missed the puck, and he poked it by me,” Price said after the overtime win. “I was just desperate. We did a good job of collapsing after that.”
Were you initially aware you had stopped the shot?
Price, as always, was playing it cool. There’s no better way for the Canadiens to stay hot.