As he was bombarded with pucks on Saturday, Carey Price did what he has throughout most of his career: steered them aside and remained unflustered in the midst of a maelstrom.
Montreal’s future Hall of Fame goalie had 18 saves in the first period as the Pittsburgh Penguins tried to overrun their underdog opponent in the first qualifying game between them for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
If the Canadiens were supposed to get steamrolled in their best-of-five series so they could line up for a chance at the No. 1 pick in this fall’s belated NHL entry draft, somebody neglected to tell him. The 32-year-old may just play them out of a chance at nabbing Alexis Lafrenière, the prized prospect that will be chosen by one of the play-in tournament’s eight losers.
Price was flawless during the early deluge and led Montreal, the 12th- and lowest-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, to a 3-2 overtime victory in Game 1 over Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rest.
“It’s one of the scenarios you want to be in,” Price said quietly the morning after. “It’s why we play the game.”
With no malice directed at any of his teammates, he likely represents the Canadiens’ only chance at going farther in this postseason. They were also-rans when the regular season was suspended on March 12 due to the spread of the coronavirus, and got in only because the playoff format was expanded from 16 to 24 teams.
So the question entering Monday night’s second contest in the Return to Play tournament was whether Price could steal another game.
He was fabulous again, but was unable to pull it off a second time. He stopped all but two of 37 shots in a 3-1 Penguins triumph that knotted the series at one win apiece. Crosby and Jason Zucker scored for Pittsburgh, which led 2-0 before Jesperi Kotkaniemi netted one for Montreal with 2:10 remaining.
“When you dissect a series, you look at Game 2 and say, ‘You let them back in,’ or ‘You put them against the wall,’ " Montreal head coach Claude Julien said earlier in the day. “The outcome is huge for each of us.”
It was likely more important to the Penguins. Only one team has ever come back from an 0-2 hole to win a five-game playoff series in NHL history.
“Our players understand where they are at,” Mike Sullivan, the Penguins head coach, said earlier, too. “It’s a series, not a one-game scenario. You have to stay in the moment and stay calm.”
Price stopped 39 of 41 shots in a Game 1 performance that hearkened back to headier times. In 2014-15, he won four of the league’s most prestigious awards, including the Hart Memorial Trophy as most valuable player, the Vézina Trophy as top goaltender, and the Ted Lindsay Award as the most outstanding player as chosen by his peers.
That season he had a .933 save percentage and he was even better (.934) the next. His numbers have declined since then, but he has been voted the top netminder in the league by members of the players’ association in each of the last two years.
“He makes really big saves and gives us that calming influence,” Jeff Petry, who scored Saturday’s winning goal, said. “That’s what he is all about. It settles everyone down.”
Pittsburgh unleashed 96 shots at Price on Saturday, with 27 blocked and 26 wide. The rest he denied, including a third-period penalty attempt by Conor Sheary with the score tied at 2-2. It is unlikely that the game would still have been hanging in the balance at that point if Price had not been brilliant at the beginning. His side was outshot 10-1 in the opening minutes.
“He allowed us to come back and adjust ourselves for the second period and the rest of the game,” Julien said. “He made huge saves and gave us a chance to win.
“If it was not for him …”
Julien did not finish the thought but there is little doubt where his mind was headed: to a one-game deficit rather than a 1-0 lead. In 83 five-game playoff series before this year, the team that won the first game won 68 of them. That is 82 per cent of the time.
“He gave us a lot of confidence,” Nick Suzuki said Saturday night. “I know a lot of people didn’t see us as contenders.”
Price stood tall again in Game 2. Montreal was outshot 14-7 but trailed by just 1-0 at the first intermission. The goal was Crosby’s second in as many games and his 68th during the playoffs, tying him with Gordie Howe for 18th place on the all-time NHL career list.
Price turned away all 15 pucks in the second period, which ended with Pittsburgh holding a 29-13 edge in shots on net. Included among those he stopped in the first 40 minutes were 10 that came on Penguins power plays.
Montreal cranked up the pressure in the third period and nearly got the tying goal on a rush by Tomas Tatar. Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray slid across the crease to stop the shot. Murray finished with 26 saves.
The Penguins got what turned out to be the winning goal from Zucker with 5:19 remaining. Jake Guentzel scored an empty netter in the waning seconds.
The series is now all even, but it’s not the fault of Price. In two games, he has stopped 74 of 78 shots.
“[Carey] is the backbone of our team,” Brett Kulak, the Canadiens defenceman, said.
Julien said after Monday’s loss that he wished Price’s teammates had given him more help. Montreal got only one shot off on three power plays.
“All I can say is that he has given us a chance to win both games,” the coach said. “He has easily been our best player. Outstanding is what he is.
“He is living up to his reputation.”