The season could not have started any better for Mike Condon. After outplaying Joey MacDonald for the starting job with the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs last season, the third-year pro overtook Dustin Tokarski as backup for the Montreal Canadiens with a brilliant showing during training camp in 2015.
At the start of the season, when the Habs were the most dangerous team in the league, Condon was called in to play in net only twice in 12 games. He posted a staggering .947 save percentage after his first two career NHL starts, which raised the question of whether Condon was a fluke benefiting from a team that was hitting on all cylinders, or the real deal. Most assumed that question would never have to be answered. Then fate intervened.
On October 29, the 11th game of the season, Carey Price suffered an injury that was slated to keep him out of action no more than a few weeks, and the reins were handed to Condon to weather the storm until the MVP could return. He held his own in the new role, setting a franchise record for the most games at the start of a Canadiens career without a regulation loss, until a blowout defeat in Colorado finally put an end to the eight-game streak. He led the high-flying Canadiens to a 5-2-2 record in Price's absence, and at one point was even named the NHL's third star of the week.
Price returned to take back the crease on November 20, and it appeared that the Habs had dealt with the worst possible adversity of losing their All-Star goaltender. But fate wasn't done.
During his third game back on November 25, Price sustained a completely unrelated, yet suspiciously similar, injury in a game against the New York Rangers. Condon finished the game as Habs fans held their breath waiting for news on the star netminder.
Unbeknownst to everyone at the time, Condon became the de facto starter for Montreal for the remainder of the season, and things started to unravel quickly for the 25-year-old and the rest of the team.
It became painfully obvious that the Canadiens needed their goalie to stand on his head to earn a victory. It's what Price had to do repeatedly last season and it won him a Hart Trophy. Despitestellar start to the season, he fell apart completely in December, and the team went into a tailspin from which it was never able to recover.
In total, Condon played 55 games in his first NHL season; the most for a rookie Habs goaltender since Ken Dryden played 64 games in 1971-72.
Among the 19 goalies who played more than 3000 minutes this season, Condon had the worst save percentage, coming in at .903, and his goals-against average of 2.71 bested only Ottawa's Craig Anderson and Colorado's Semyon Varlamov. For a team that depends on a defensively hermetic system and a goalie to bail them out of mistakes, these statistics were simply not good enough to allow them to win. In his rookie season, Condon failed to be the starting goaltender that the Canadiens desperately need in order to be successful.
Condon was able to show flashes of brilliance throughout the season, and perhaps there was no bigger moment than the Winter Classic, where he played the biggest game of his career in his own home town. He always carried a chip on his shoulder for not getting invited to the Boston Bruins' camp when he was an undrafted free agent, and this was his chance to exorcise all those past feelings of resentment.
In retrospect, putting the weight of the world of this rookie goaltender was probably not a fair thing to do by General Manager Marc Bergevin, but the duration of Price's absence was undetermined, and Condon's early performances probably gave the organization hope that Condon would be up to the task until Price returned.
Next season, Price should be back to full health, and Condon will be able to focus his efforts on earning a backup role. There will be a glut of goalie depth in the system between Condon, Lindgren, and Zachary Fucale, so Bergevin may decide to shake things up for next season, and Condon might find himself under different lights. Whichever ice surface he finds himself on, he can take this year's crash course in NHL goaltending into the off-season and build upon it for the 2016-17 campaign.
Condon should be commended for keeping it together throughout a very difficult season. Other more experienced goaltenders, like Tokarski and Ben Scrivens, have simply not been up to that task. It will be interesting to see how Condon has incorporated the knowledge of his first NHL season when training camp rolls around in September.