Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include Carey Price’s outstanding season for the Montreal Canadiens; notes on other goaltenders, including Martin Brodeur, Pekka Rinne and Braden Holtby; plus notes on Alex Ovechkin and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
FIRST PERIOD: Price has matured into a ‘true leader’ for the Canadiens
The shot floated through the air from long range. Carey Price figured he would stop the puck and then play it, because his Montreal Canadiens were on the power play and he didn’t want a whistle in the defensive zone. The puck hit him in the chest …
And dropped between his legs and dribbled behind him. He fell to his knees. As he searched for the puck, looking side to side, Erik Condra swiped it out of the crease and into the net. Shorthanded goal. Price had spotted the Ottawa Senators a 1-0 lead just 2:50 into the game Dec. 20 at the Bell Centre.
“What a disaster for Price!” the TV announcer declared on ‘Hockey Night in Canada.’
What a window into one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. Price didn’t allow another goal the rest of the night. The Habs won, 4-1. Afterward, in the dressing room and in the media, Price laughed off the softie as “a Homer Simpson moment.”
“He said, ‘D’oh!’ ” said teammate Brendan Gallagher. “And then he moved on. That’s just the type of person that he is.”
Price does not panic. He’s perfect for the Montreal market – the history, the passion, the attention, the expectations – and this particular Canadiens team. The Habs rank in the bottom third of the NHL in goals for (22nd), power play (24th), shots for (25th) and shots against (21st). Yet they’re near the top in goals against (third) and points percentage (fifth) largely because Price has had so few Homer Simpson moments. He’s been more like Lisa Simpson on the saxophone.
He’s a candidate for the Vezina Trophy and the Hart Trophy about halfway through the season. His .927 save percentage ranks third among goalies who have played at least 20 games, second among those who have played at least 28.
“I’ve never seen him nervous,” said teammate Max Pacioretty. “A lot of times you’ll see a goalie panic or start to maybe yell or get mad after a bad goal. I’ve seen that a handful of times [from Price], and it’s not due to nervousness. It’s due to frustration. I’ve never seen him change his personality based off of nervousness. Never.”
Price was talented enough to be drafted fifth overall in 2005 and play in the NHL at age 20. He was cool enough to tell everyone to chill out in September 2010, when he was booed at the Bell Centre after allowing four goals on nine shots in an exhibition after the Canadiens had traded playoff hero Jaroslav Halak. He has long made it look easy at his best – moving smoothly, getting into position, letting the puck hit him, letting little get to him.
But last season, he had turned 26 years old, an age when a lot of goaltenders hit their prime, and the Habs had hired a new goaltending coach, Stephane Waite. Price posted the best goals-against average (2.32) and save percentage (.927) of his career. He also won gold as the No. 1 goaltender for Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics – with little margin for error in tight games, despite that team’s possession dominance – and he was perhaps the second-biggest reason, after electrifying defenseman P.K. Subban, the Habs beat the Boston Bruins in the second round of the playoffs. They fell to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference final after Price suffered an injury in Game 1.
Now he’s 27. His GAA is even lower (2.19). His save percentage is just as good (.927). “I think he’s taken his game to a whole new level the last two years,” Pacioretty said.
“He’s really well-respected in that dressing room,” said coach Michel Therrien. “He has matured a lot the last few years. … Everything that you ask from a pro player, you get that from Carey Price. He’s a true leader for this hockey club.”
After parting with captain Brian Gionta and alternate Josh Gorges, the Canadiens decided not to name a captain this season. They named four alternates instead: Pacioretty, Subban, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Markov. Price didn’t get a letter because he was a goaltender. But he has been the fifth member of the leadership group, meeting with Therrien, taking a larger role in the room. He doesn’t say much – especially about himself in public – but what he does say might make the biggest impact.
“I don’t think when anyone else speaks they get the type of respect and the type of positive reaction he does,” Gallagher said.
“You don’t see him get too mad too often,” Pacioretty said. “So when he does show his emotions, we know we have to step up for him. I think in the past, he might have shown it a little bit more, but just like all of us, we’ve all grown up.”
The Canadiens have speed and skill. They have scored more lately and have adjusted their power play, which finally broke through with three goals Wednesday night in a 3-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets. They say they aren’t worried about allowing 30.2 shots per game, because many of those shots are from the outside and they aren’t allowing as many Grade A scoring chances as it might seem. “The guys have really played well in front of me, and it’s reflected in my numbers,” Price said.
But whether they’re right or wrong – other teams have said similar things and haven’t been able to sustain success – so much depends on goaltending.
“Our job as a team is to limit the opportunities we give the other team, but it doesn’t seem to really matter whether he gets a lot of shots a game or a little bit,” Subban said. “He always seems to make the big saves when we need them.”
SECOND PERIOD: More goaltender notes from around the NHL
— The Minnesota Wild has been a mirror image of the Montreal Canadiens – fourth in shots against per game, yet 24th in goals against per game. The Wild does not have a Carey Price, which is why general manager Chuck Fletcher was right to get another goaltender and not fire coach Mike Yeo. The Wild still does not have a Carey Price. It has a Devan Dubnyk, a pending unrestricted free agent acquired Wednesday from the Arizona Coyotes for a third-round pick. But at least Dubnyk is an upgrade. He has a .916 save percentage this season in 19 games. Darcy Kuemper has a .902 in 28. Niklas Backstrom has an .887 in 19.
— Why has the Wild been so fragile? Probably not because of coaching. Probably because the goaltending hasn’t been competent enough to win, and the players have known it, and so they have crumpled at the first sign of adversity in games. You hear it in code in quotes like: “The puck always seems to end up in our net.”
— This has to be the end of Martin Brodeur, who is taking a week-long leave of absence to think about his future a week before the all-star break – when, you know, he would have time to think about his future. Brodeur has by far more wins (691) and shutouts (125) than any other goaltender in the history of the NHL. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, one of the greatest of all-time. But he’s 42 and just not a good NHL goaltender anymore. He put up a .901 save percentage in his last two seasons with the New Jersey Devils. He’s at .899 this season in seven games with the St. Louis Blues. He has been a healthy scratch behind Brian Elliott and Jake Allen now that Elliott has returned from a knee injury.
— Brodeur might say he doesn’t want to make another major change, so he doesn’t want the Blues to trade him. But the hard truth is, there wasn’t a market for him as a free agent over the summer, and there can’t be a market for him now based on his performance, especially among the contenders for whom he would want to play. He would not have been an upgrade for the Wild. The Detroit Red Wings lost Jimmy Howard to a groin tear, but he is expected to miss two to four weeks and the Wings have youngster Petr Mrazek. The Nashville Predators lost Pekka Rinne to a sprained knee, but for three to five weeks. The Preds appear content to go with backup Carter Hutton. He’s 0-3-2 this season, but he has a better save percentage than Brodeur does: .905.
— We’re about to find out just how integral Rinne has been to the Preds’ success. Rinne is a leading candidate for the Hart, if not the leading candidate. He’s the only goaltender who has had a better season than Price, first in save percentage (.931) among those who have played at least 20 games.
— Barry Trotz, fired by the Predators, hired by the Washington Capitals, was talking this week about Rinne’s recovery from hip problems when he said: “I know how close he was to maybe not playing again.” Not playing again? Everyone knows Rinne had hip surgery and then another surgery to clear out an infection last season, but no one has insinuated it was career-threatening. Trotz clarified by saying that the infection was “lethal,” that it “chews at the bone.” “You don’t know if the player is going to be quite the same,” Trotz said. “A number of goalies have had hip surgery, and they’re never the same. Pekka had the surgery, and he might be having his best season ever right now.”
— Trotz’s current goaltender is having a heck of a season. Braden Holtby has appeared in 26 straight games, a franchise record, and started 20 straight games, a career high. He’s 14-2-4 over those 20 starts. He’s 22-8-7 with a 2.17 GAA, .924 save percentage and four shutouts.
THIRD PERIOD: Notes from around the NHL
— What has it been like to coach Alex Ovechkin? “He’s been easy to coach,” Trotz said. “You’ve just got to be honest, got to be firm with him.” Trotz said after winning individual awards, Ovechkin wanted to win a team trophy. He gave him some pretty high praise. “He is a modern-day Mark Messier in a lot of ways,” Trotz said. “There’s not a superstar that can score goals like him. There’s not a superstar that is as physical as him at the forward position in the National Hockey League. I think a lot of people have been knocking on him, and he’s really embraced playing the way he needs to play. He’s been a joy to coach.”
— The Toronto Maple Leafs have gone 1-3-0 since firing coach Randy Carlyle. They have been shut out in back-to-back games. But the Leafs are looking at process over results, and one stat in particular shows progress under interim coach Peter Horachek: shots against. Under Carlyle, the Leafs set a goal of allowing 25 shots or less. They still allowed far too many shots, even when they were winning. Under Horachek, they have allowed 26, 20, 20 and 25.
— The Canadiens do not care for comparisons to the Colorado Avalanche. The Avs racked up 112 points despite ranking 25th in shots against last season, saying they were keeping shots to the outside and not giving up Grade A scoring chances. They have regressed this season as many analysts predicted they would. “Colorado’s a way different team,” Pacioretty said. “They play man-on-man in the ‘D’ zone, a completely different system than us.” (For the record, the Avs used to play man. They switched to zone early this season.) “Obviously we do give up a lot of shots, and it’s something that we definitely want to clean up. Our system isn’t, ‘Give teams shots.’ We’ve got to try to clean that up and hopefully create more offensive zone time.”
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