- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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MONTREAL -- Public address announcer Michel Lacroix dragged it out for dramatic effect. The Bell Centre crowd was on its feet waiting to shower its goaltending hero with a loud ovation.
"Et la premiere etoile the first star "
And no, the next two words out of Lacroix's mouth were not "Jaroslav Halak." That was this past spring; this was Tuesday night.
" Ca-rey, Price!" Lacroix belted out as the arena shook.
With a 41-save shutout of the powerhouse Philadelphia Flyers under his belt, Carey Price skated across the ice and flipped a few pucks over the glass to fans. Finally, there was one last puck to give away. Price pointed and wouldn't leave until he was sure it would go to a young fan in the fifth or sixth row. Focused until the end.
Two hours earlier, when he slid across the ice in the first period to rob Flyers captain Mike Richards of a sure goal, chants of "Carey! Carey!" came cascading down from the Bell Centre rafters. There's been a lot of that lately.
Is there a better story in the NHL right now? Price has won over a market that spent the summer lamenting the loss of playoff hero Halak, and it's nothing short of remarkable. A lot of these fans were ready to pounce on Price seven weeks ago. The pressure was high entering this season.
"Looking at it, you can't picture a situation where there could be more pressure on an individual," Jerry Price, Carey's father, told ESPN.com via phone Tuesday from Williams Lake, British Columbia. "But I think for Carey, looking at the situation and seeing that, he just realized it is what it is. He's grown up and matured.
"One of the big differences in Carey is the realization that all he can do is go play. There's just so many things that are out of his control. He can only do what he can do. It's been better for him this year."
Price, 23, had zero wiggle room when the puck dropped this fall. He was replacing the most beloved Habs goalie since Patrick Roy. There was only one way to the fans' hearts: winning.
He's done that to the tune of 11 victories, ranking second in the NHL as of Thursday morning. Price is also among the league leaders with a 2.05 goals-against average and .930 save percentage. Those are Vezina Trophy-like numbers.
"It's a lot of pressure, and for a young guy like that to be handling it like he is, it shows how much he's matured," Habs captain Brian Gionta said.
Canadiens coach Jacques Martin started coaching in the NHL in 1986. When asked whether he could remember another player facing that kind of pressure entering a season, he couldn't think of one.
"Probably not," Martin told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "This market is unique. Our fans are really passionate, almost to the point where they take it personal. I give Carey a lot of credit. I feel last year was very beneficial for him."
Ah, yes. Last season was when Halak took the No. 1 job away from Price and stood on his head as the Habs shocked Washington and Pittsburgh en route to the Eastern Conference finals. Price, who had quickly risen to fame four years ago as a rookie goalie in Montreal, was relegated to bench observer. But something funny happened at what was the low point of his young career -- he worked even harder.
"Maybe last year, on the outside, might have seemed like a failure, but in reality, I think it really helped him mature and grow," Martin said. "It really helped him become a better goaltender and gain a better work ethic. And probably the most important part of his growth was his understanding of his teammates and understanding how a team functions. I think the way he handled himself in a difficult situation earned a lot of respect from his teammates. Those are life lessons that are helping him now and will help him in the future."
Gionta said this season's success can be traced back to last season's positive reaction under trying times.
"You started to see it last year, his maturity and his work ethic really picked up," Gionta said. "Even though he wasn't playing late last year, he was here working on his game. He had a great attitude around the rink, and I think the process started then. It carried over to the summer. Coming into this season, he was ready and focused."
Price said it was the only way to react despite his personal disappointment in losing his starting role last season.
"At that particular time, there was no use in crying," Price told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "The team was doing well, and the guy in goal was playing great. Crying about it wasn't going to do anything good. All I could do was do my part and bide my time."
Bide his time and wait until the offseason, when one of the biggest decisions in recent franchise history was finally made after much debate, in Montreal and across the league. Halak or Price? Who would go?
Jerry Price, who works in human resources at a mining company in Williams Lake, remembers where he was when his phone rang that day in June.
"I was up at the mine and got the phone call from Carey's agent [Gerry Johannson]. He said, 'Did you hear about the trade?' I said, 'Oh, where did Carey go?' He said, 'No, Halak got traded.' I couldn't believe it,'' Jerry said.
It was a shock to many Habs fans because of Halak's playoff performance but not surprising to those in the business. The Canadiens made the same determination as many hockey people: Halak was a terrific goalie with a long and successful career ahead of him, but Price still had tantalizing upside that the Canadiens couldn't ignore.
"I think down the road if you looked at who I would have thought was a better goalie in the future, I always thought that Carey was," Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges said. "I don't think anyone ever doubted his ability; it was just a matter of finding his game. I can't remember where I was that day [of the trade], but I know I wasn't too shocked that that was the choice they made. I would have made the same decision."
Price also was two years younger and would be cheaper to re-sign than Halak. With the cap savings they gained by trading Halak to St. Louis, the Canadiens were able to re-sign star center Tomas Plekanec.
"Jaroslav Halak is an excellent goaltender, too," Martin said. "But it's just because of the new NHL, the cap being a factor, it was difficult to continue with two No. 1 goalies. We had to decide, and as an organization, I think everybody felt that Carey still had a lot of potential and could do the job for this organization."
It all makes sense now, but at the time, Price had no clue.
"I didn't know what was going to happen. I thought it was 50-50 whether they'd go with me or Jaro," Price said. "I just put it in the Lord's hands. In the end, whatever happens is meant to be."
Many Habs fans did not respond well. They were upset Halak was gone and were unsure Price could reach the same level of goaltending. The city was divided over the issue.
"I remember telling people last summer when they were asking me about the Halak trade, I said, 'Jaro is a great goaltender and will be for a long time in this league. But Carey Price is one of the best goaltenders that I've ever seen,'" Habs blueliner P.K. Subban said. "There's no doubt about Carey in my mind or anybody else's in this organization. He's an All-Star, and he's going to continue to get better."
Jerry Price got home the day of the trade and wanted to see how his son felt about the news.
"He kind of shrugged and said, 'I've got roping practice tonight,'" Jerry Price said with a chuckle. "That was the extent of the conversation."
Roping, you ask? That's right, the rodeo stuff.
"I really like team roping," Carey Price said. "It's something that I've really picked up over the last three to four years. It's been really fun."
Whether it's the rodeo environment or the solid upbringing from his parents, what comes through more than ever these days is Price's humility.
"I didn't know him before, and maybe he came off as cocky, but he's anything from it," said Habs veteran center Jeff Halpern, an offseason acquisition. "He's down-to-earth; he's a humble guy. He's approaching the game with a ton of respect right now, and he's been playing great. I'm happy for him, and it's great to see."
Humble, and certainly wiser.
"I think I've just learned a lot of lessons throughout the last couple of years," Price said. "Even now I'm still learning."
Jerry Price said his son is more at ease this season.
"This being his fourth year, he's starting to understand that there's things he can't control," Jerry Price said. "He can't please everybody; he can't always meet everyone's expectations. I just think he's more at peace this year than I've seen him the last couple of years. He's more at ease with that pressure now, I think."
That certainly wasn't the case two years ago, when the Bell Centre crowd gave Price the old Bronx cheer during Game 4 of a lopsided first-round series loss to Boston. (The Habs just didn't show up in that four-game sweep.) Price responded by raising his arms to the crowd. Oh, boy. The fans' wrath was tough on Dad.
"It's not easy, that's for sure," Jerry Price said. "It's hard to watch your boy play and the reaction from some fans sometimes. You realize it's not everybody. But somebody asked me once how I felt about that, and I said, 'How would you feel if they booed your daughter at the school play?'
"It doesn't matter what they're doing; they're still your children, and you feel for them. You want them to do well, and you do everything you can to support them when things aren't going well. It's not easy when they're going through a hard time. It's obviously much better when they're having some success and they're enjoying what they're doing."
That mercurial relationship with the Bell Centre faithful was tested again in the preseason, when the fans gave it to Price after he allowed a questionable goal in Montreal's first preseason contest. After the game, when pressed by media for his reaction, he said the fans should chill out because it was only the preseason. It was hard then and there not to wonder just how dramatic this season would be.
"It was just the first exhibition game; it wasn't a time to push any big, red buttons," Carey said Wednesday. "It was early, and it was just time to relax. We weren't in the playoffs. It was just time to get better."
When the puck dropped for real in the regular season, Price was ready. The boobirds never had a chance.
"He had a couple of tough games in preseason, and that was the first taste that I got of someone having that kind of pressure in the NHL," Halpern said. "But right from the first regular-season game, the guy's been a wall. He's given us every bit of confidence to win games and to play in front of him. It's one of the best runs I've ever seen for a goalie, and under this kind of pressure, that's phenomenal."
If the pressure wasn't already unfathomable for Price entering this season, Halak cranked it up a notch by flying out of the gates in October with solid goaltending surpassed only by Boston's Tim Thomas.
Price took notice. It's only human nature, right? Of course Price monitors how the Slovak star goalie is doing in his new digs in St. Louis.
"He's doing really well," Price said. "I knew he was going to. That's why I put a lot of preparation into this year. I'm always going to be compared to him; it's just the way it is because of what he did last year. There's no way around it. I'm happy for him that he's doing well."
Price responded with sensational goaltending of his own. Both goalies have won NHL player of the week honors, and for the first time this season, Price is now also ahead of Halak in GAA, save percentage and wins.
The biggest reason for Price's success: He doesn't let a goal get to him. Easier said than done, but that's been his focus.
"I think that's been a real key for me," said Price, who repeatedly credited his teammates for their play during the interview. "It's been fun. We just want to keep this going."
How quickly things change. Six months ago, fans wanted him traded out of town. Now, they chant his name in appreciation.
"I've always felt that Montreal is the place where he's supposed to be," Jerry Price said. "So where it goes from here I guess we'll find out."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.