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Montreal Canadiens’ goaltender Carey Price makes a save against Vancouver Canucks' David Booth during third period NHL hockey action in Montreal on Feb. 6, 2014. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Montreal Canadiens’ goaltender Carey Price makes a save against Vancouver Canucks' David Booth during third period NHL hockey action in Montreal on Feb. 6, 2014. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Olympics

Canada’s No. 1 Goalie? Under Carey Price’s mask lurks a pitiless competitor Add to ...

No other sporting decision in this country inspires quite the same fear and loathing as who will play goal for Team Canada.

Standing laconically in the crease, Carey Price might seem cooler than a hipster’s glasses; he is also as ready as he’ll ever be to seal himself inside hockey’s largest international pressure cooker.

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Under the mask lurks a pitiless competitor.

If his red-and-white goalie sticks could talk or fill out a witness statement, they might testify to incipient violence and living in fear of meeting a gruesome, splintery end against a goalpost.

You see it most often in practice – Price hates giving up goals, so, occasionally, the pressure builds in the shootout drill. After three or four consecutive goals, the stick ends up getting it.

Hey, they knew the risks.

The ritual stick sacrifices are rarer this year than in the past, which is evidence both the Montreal Canadiens stopper is happier with his game, and of his stature in the Habs locker room – at a public practice in early January, his teammates suspiciously started taking long wrist shots and missing the net after firing a half-dozen shootout goals past him.

(To ask players about it is to be met with a knowing grin.)

Price, 26, and in his seventh NHL season, has found the ideal tension between ice and fire in his demeanour.

Couple it with top-end technical abilities and a rich recent vein of form, and you have a player who by all indications is the man of the hour for Team Canada at the Sochi Winter Olympics. (Thursday, Price outplayed his main rival for the starting job – Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks – turning away 42 of 44 shots, and looking unruffled and economical doing it.)

Price has posted some impressive streaks in his career, none of them more impeccably timed than his current five-game stretch, in which he has saved 172 of 178 shots, posting a .966 save percentage.

Even as Canada head coach Mike Babcock signalled his intention to rotate goalies in the Olympic qualifying round, the smart money remains on the Habs stopper to be the guy when the stakes are bumped up. By now, Price’s life and career have been dissected ad nauseam – asked recently whether there’s anything people don’t know about him, he laughed and said: “In this market? Uh, no” – but here’s something fans might underestimate in the B.C. native: Far from being the nonchalant athlete he is sometimes criticized for being, the competitive furnaces run white hot.

“I’m not really any different from any other player,” he said in a recent interview. “Most athletes are A-type personalities, they want to get after it. It’s a good trait to have.”

Much has been made about the technical adjustments new goalie coach Stéphane Waite has brought to bear – Price has been asked to spend more time on his edges, and less moving around the crease on his knees – and while they’ve doubtless paid off, the best explanation to Price’s imperious season surely boils down to psychological and athletic maturity.

That’s certainly Waite’s view.

“I haven’t really changed anything, just brought a couple of little elements, this is the age at which goaltenders start to enter their prime, and it’s something you have to go through. You can’t buy it, you can’t practice it, maturity comes with experience,” said Waite, who has previously worked with Stanley Cup-winning goalies Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford.

No less an authority than New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur – three-time Stanley Cup champion, double Olympic gold medalist – said Price seems more in control.

“I’m not going to say that I’ve watched every game, but to me the difference with other years he looks a little more intense. He’s squatting down more and he’s exploding well to cut off the net, not just sliding laterally like he used to,” said Brodeur, one of Price’s childhood idols.

Though Price went through a rough 12-day patch in January during which his stats cratered – he gave up four or more goals in five consecutive games and was pulled twice – normal service has resumed.

Price halted a four-game losing skid on Jan. 28, by shutting out the Carolina Hurricanes, a game in which he was rightly named the first star.

Against the Canucks, he made a handful of athletic saves – so, it has to be said, did Luongo – and the only shots that got by him were on the power play (one of them a deflection off an enemy shin pad, the other a shot through traffic that went off the post and in).

There’s an incontrovertible argument to be made that if Price (25-17-5, 2.36 goals-against average) played for a team that was better defensively and offered more offensive support, he would be posting career-best numbers – happily enough, Team Canada stands to be a good bit better than the Habs.

In Price’s mind, his improvement of the past couple of seasons comes down to preparation and practice habits.

It’s not that he dogged it before, just that the benefit of 387 games in the NHL – and the familiarity he has with its players – is beginning to show.

“I’ve been through pretty much every situation you can expect to see on the ice,” he said. “Off the ice, too, actually. Having that experience makes you more comfortable.”

To play goal in Montreal is to suffer the effects of a passionate fan base given to violent mood swings, and Price has felt all the adulation and scorn they can deliver.

But since posting career-best numbers in 2011-12 on a terrible team (and being rewarded with a rich long-term contract), Price has cemented his place among the goaltending elite.

The fact he has entered full-fledged adulthood – he bought a house in the suburbs a couple of years ago, and got married last summer, the day before the Team Canada orientation camp – is coincidental, but also related, said one of his closest friends on the Habs.

“As you get older and you mature, you understand the things are really important. What matters, what doesn’t,” defenceman Josh Gorges said. “As you learn to appreciate the little things in life, you appreciate the little things in the game. … Every once in a while, we’ll sit and laugh about five, six years ago, and how we were. It’s been a turnaround for both of us, for the better. It’s funny to think about.”

Experience has translated into professionalism.

Waite said he and Price have devised a detailed routine of physical, mental and tactical preparation (read: video) the goalie scrupulously follows both before and after games.

“He’s focusing on the things he should be focused on. You can’t look at anything beyond the present. We’ve never spoken about the Olympics. Never, not since Day 1,” he said. “Coaches often have objectives, specific goals for things like wins, save percentage, all that, but we don’t have any of those things. It’s wasted energy.”

That seems thoroughly plausible – Price flatly refuses to answer specific questions about the Olympics, it’s as if he has refused to allow himself to think about it.

Beyond his ability to live in the now, Price also has a track record of winning international tournaments (he helped Canada to the world junior championship gold in 2003, along with current Team Canada teammate, centre Jonathan Toews).

History tends to round off the edges of people’s memories, so fans who remember Toews’s shootout heroics may not remember Price was merely average in the tournament’s deciding moments. But that won’t diminish the fact he has an inkling of what to expect in Sochi.

So wring your hands if you must, but Carey Price has the talent and the temperament, he is as ready as he’ll ever be to take on the pressure of being the Olympic starter.

As Gorges said: “He’s used to the circus by now.”

All that changes in Sochi is the colour of the big top.

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon