The Montreal Canadiens needed a near-perfect effort from Carey Price to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs.
He did exactly that.
Nobody expected the Canadiens to get this far, especially with the way Price played during the regular season. The 2020-21 season was one of the toughest of Price's career, fighting injuries and poor play all the way to the start of the post-season. In Game 1 against Toronto, it was his first NHL contest in a month, and he stood tall against a favored Maple Leafs team.
So what did Price do? Steal the show, of course. And then again against Winnipeg. And then again against Vegas.
The Carey Price we saw during the regular season was not the Carey Price we've grown accustomed to. At his best, Price was an average starting goalie. At his worst, he truly was playing some of the worst hockey of his career. But he did enough early on - and Jake Allen helped along the way - to send the Canadiens to the post-season. After a long break from a concussion, Price seemed rejuvenated, like he needed a break. He got it, and he's been unstoppable ever since.
If Montreal ends up winning the Stanley Cup, it's hard to think anyone but him would be the one holding the Conn Smythe when everything is said and done. Price's surface stats - a .934 save percentage and 2.02 goals against average - are tops in the playoffs. His .934 SP and 3.06 GSAA is beaten by only Andrei Vasilevskiy among goalies with nine or more starts. Without Price, the Canadiens aren't competing for Lord Stanley's trophy for the first time in 28 years.
One of the biggest knocks on Price's career legacy has always been his inability to take the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup. It's silly, because even when he's been inhuman in the past, we're still talking about a franchise that has had trouble attracting high-end talent for decades. You need more than a good goaltender to win championships.
But now they've got the goaltending AND the scoring to bring them to the final round. So now it's up to Price to once again hold his end of the bargain, and nothing about his play so far suggests that it won't be possible.
So what has made Price perform so well in the playoffs? For starters, the "calm, cool and collected" Carey Price we're used to is performing like we're used to. Back in March, after a rough few weeks for Price, the Canadiens let go former goalie coach Stephane Waite and hired Sean Burke. Price started the season with a 5-43 record with a .888 SP and 3.13 GAA in 12 games prior to the change. Price immediately saw an improvement in his game with Burke at the helm, finishing the regular season with a 7-3-2 record with a .916 SP and 2.16 GAA.
Whether or not Burke was the reason why Price turned things around has still yet to be seen, but it's a true return to the fundamentals that made him so good in the past.
"One of the things that I think he's always been really elite is his skating," Toronto-area goalie coach and former AHL goaltender Rob Gherson said. "Because of his skating, he can bail himself out when he does make a mistake.
"People always talk about how calm he is in the net," Gherson added. "So much of that is because by the time you see him on camera, the way TV works, he's already set because his skating is so good. His pushes are so strong. They're so explosive. So he's able to get to spots before the shooter gets the pass across and that makes the game so much easier because he's already there."
Price hasn't always needed to save game for Montreal in the playoffs. But for a team carrying a narrative where scoring three goals was always a challenge, that means your goaltending needs to stand out. And Price has been that rock for the Canadiens, especially when games have been close and he's getting peppered by scoring chances.
"His upper body is really calm and relaxed," Gherson said. "So when the puck hits him in the chest, it just kind of dies. Some guys really tighten their upper body or the puck is hitting gloves and popping out or hitting arms and not they're not able to find it."
As Gherson said, while Price has been fantastic, some credit has to go to the team in front of him.
"He hasn't let in any goals that he should have stopped, really," Gherson said. "Montreal is taking away all the time and space since the series against the Leafs. I thought he really had to stand on his head in a couple of games in the Leafs series. But against Winnipeg and Vegas, Montreal just shut everything down."
The Canadiens getting to this point has been remarkable, and the play of Price has been game-changing all playoffs long. If the Canadiens hoist Lord Stanley's trophy in a few weeks, you can bet on Price being a major reason why.