Reasonable minds can disagree here, but: The most scrutinized position in sports just might be the starting goaltender in Montreal, where praise and criticism and comparisons to legends are doled out by the minute, in two languages, without so much as a break for lunch.
Jacques Plante lived this life, and so did Ken Dryden, and so did Patrick Roy, and so have so many others, and so, too, has Carey Price, who has played more games with the Canadiens than them all, and more seasons.
Beneath the Coupe Stanley banners that they helped raise but he has not, Price skated onto the ice Friday for the first Cup finals game in Montreal in nearly three decades to a rousing ovation at Bell Centre. He skated off about two-and-a-half hours later, after a 6-3 defeat to Tampa Bay, ever further from adding his name to the only trophy that has eluded him, and the only one that matters.
All three games of the finals have ended the same way, with Tampa Bay scoring more goals than Montreal, and though there are other, nuanced reasons that explain why the Lightning are on the precipice of winning their second consecutive Cup in nine months, a prevailing one is rather unfamiliar to the Canadiens: They have the inferior goalie.
“I can definitely play better,” Price said afterward. “It’s just not good enough so far.”
Until Friday night, Price had not been made available to the news media since last Sunday, the day before the series started, when his responses in sum contained roughly as many syllables as goals allowed this series. That total now stands at 13, or eight more than allowed by his Lightning counterpart, Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has faced 18 more shots than Price at even strength, but has saved a far higher percentage in those circumstances (.954 to .840).
The difference between them was most pronounced in Game 2, which Vasilevskiy snatched from the Canadiens, saving 42 of 43 shots, while Price seemed to misplay ever so slightly the game-turning goal in the second period, anticipating a backhand shot from Barclay Goodrow instead of a cross-circle pass that Blake Coleman poked in while falling.
Discussing Vasilevskiy’s evolution, Lightning Coach Jon Cooper praised Price’s consistency and his calm demeanor, and how it took time for him to grow into that.
“It’s still his time, but he’s been in the league for 15-plus years,” Cooper said. “I think torches get passed. I think Carey is still carrying the torch, but it’s getting passed.”
Even by pandemic standards, this has been a tumultuous season for Price, whose longtime goaltending coach, Stephane Waite, was fired in March. After missing the final 13 games because of a concussion, Price actually played fewer games (25) than his backup (29).
But he opened the playoffs by rescuing the Canadiens, muzzling Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in overcoming a three-games-to-one deficit against Toronto. Then he outplayed the last two winners of the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the league’s top goalie — Connor Hellebuyck of Winnipeg and Marc-Andre Fleury of Vegas — to advance to his first finals.
Just once before had Price reached as far as the league semifinals, and he lasted barely two periods of Game 1 against the Rangers in 2014, doomed by a knee injury sustained when Chris Kreider thundered into him. He had waited 14 seasons for his first finals appearance, and when the series finally shifted to Montreal on Friday, not many fans were there to watch it.
Despite pleas by the Canadiens to increase capacity at Bell Centre, public health authorities in Quebec continued to restrict attendance to 3,500. The decision exasperated players and Dominique Ducharme, the Canadiens coach, who returned on Friday from a 14-day quarantine after contracting the coronavirus, and wondered why many thousands more fans were permitted to congregate outside.
“As much as it could have been a way to reward people for getting their two doses, it could have been an incentive to increase vaccinations,” Ducharme said in French on Friday morning. “It could have been a way to reward fans who have spent 14 or 15 months in isolation and have the chance to participate in a moment like this.”
Those who did make it inside watched the Lightning score twice within the first three and a half minutes or so of each of the first two periods. There were moving screens and passiveness on the penalty kill, slow line changes and odd-man rushes, a soft goal that trickled past Price. When Tampa Bay added a fifth, late in the third period, the sequence began with an egregious Montreal turnover and ended with a rebound Price couldn’t corral.
“We made too many mistakes,” Ducharme said. “And they make you pay cash on those mistakes.”
Considering how they cling to history in Montreal, it has not gone unnoticed how these Canadiens have echoed the city’s last Cup winner back in 1993. That team also finished low in the standings — third in the old Adams Division — but rode Roy to a record 24th championship.
By 27, Roy had hoisted two Cups. By 27, Price had won the Hart Trophy, given to the N.H.L.’s most valuable player; a Vezina; and an Olympic gold medal. Now 33, and deep into a luminous career with the same fabled team, Price is still seeking his first championship. Unless he — and his team — start playing better, unless he, too, can steal a win or two or four, beginning with Game 4 on Monday night, Price will have to defer that dream another year.
“We don’t have a choice,” he said.