In recent years, Carey Price has often been described as the best goaltender in the world for a good reason. Two years ago he was a Hart Trophy and Vezina winner and last season his absence caused a division champion to fall out of the playoff race.
The Canadiens scored the exact same number of goals (221) in each of the past two seasons, but in the year they had Price between they pipes full-time they allowed 47 fewer goals. That’s the difference between a contender and an also-ran.
It’s been long understood that the Habs go as far as their goaltender takes them, and that’s almost exclusively been a good thing. Recently this hasn’t exactly been the case.
Although Price had a strong start to the season, he’s now mired in the kind on slump that’s rather foreign to him. In his last 10 times out, he’s allowed three or more goals eight times and posted a sub-.900 save percentage on six occasions. Overall the numbers aren’t pretty:
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) January 19, 2017
So, how does a famously unflappable stopper of pucks become a sieve for an extended mid-season stretch? The most natural conclusion is that the Canadiens defence corps is to blame. Beyond Shea Weber, it’s a group with far less name recognition than Price and it seems more likely that they’re at fault than something has gone awry with the Habs’ best player.
Unfortunately, while that conclusion is tidy and intuitive the evidence isn’t entirely there. The Canadiens have played 46 games this season, allowing an average of 29.8 shots per contest. In Price’s last 10 they’ve conceded 298 shots – aka 29.8 per game. Price has seen no increase in the rubber he’s faced in recent weeks. In fact, during his worst start of the season on Jan. 12 he allowed seven goals facing only 24 shots.
Shot quantity isn’t everything, but the fact it’s been static for the Habs is indicative that their defensive structure hasn’t collapsed completely. That leaves the question of what exactly is going on.
Watching the 35 goals Price has conceded in this 10-game stretch it’s clear that bad luck has played a factor. A few too many deflections have gone against him lately and there’s a couple of unstoppable one-timers from Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin in there as well.
That said, there are plenty of goals in the mix that Price and the Canadiens are not used to conceding. Those tallies fall into three basic categories: Traditional bad goals, Hanging Price out to Dry and Failed Bailouts.
Traditional Bad Goals
Part of what makes the best goaltenders great is their ability to cut the squeakers and dribblers down to an absolute minimum. That certainly applies to Price, but he’s allowed some uncharacteristic markers of late.
Against the Pittsburgh Penguins in his most recent start he let an Olli Maatta point shot right through the wickets to put his team down 4-1.
This goal appears to be blameless on first glance, but if you look closely the traffic around the net is relatively benign. While Price has some tracking to do, his sightline clears by the time the shot is taken. Also, though there’s an attempted tip in front, no contact is made. This is one he’d want back.
At the beginning of Price’s difficult run, he let one slip through off the stick of Jordan Schroeder – a 26-year-old with 14 career goals.
There’s no avoiding the occasional stinker, but it’s certainly not something Price makes a habit of.
Hanging Price out to Dry
While the defence hasn’t totally collapsed around the Canadiens goalie, he has been left to his own devices a few more times than usual and conceded goals where he had no chance whatsoever.
On New Year’s Eve Price fell victim to his defender, Weber, getting utterly out-classed by Malkin on the way to a tap-in goal from Patric Hornqvist.
To add insult to injury, Weber’s utterly ineffectual effort results in him crashing into Price and heading into the net along with the puck.
On the goal below, not only do the Habs defenders let Kevin Hayes in alone, they also completely lose track of Rick Nash who bangs one into the open cage.
Alexei Emelin manages to make two completely opposite mistakes in this sequence. Initially he plays the man – in this case Nash – and ignores the puck which allows Hayes to break free. Then, he gets caught watching the puck and loses Nash completely, making the goal easy.
What Price’s excellence does more than anything else is get the Canadiens out of sticky situations and help compensate for their mistakes. Recently, there have been times where he’s had the chance to bail out his teammates, but failed to stop pucks he’d normally handle.
For example, Jeff Petry did an appalling job of tracking Eric Staal on his goal during Price’s seven-goal nightmare last Wednesday.
Price can absolutely be forgiven for letting in this crisp snap shot off the rush, but he usually comes through on shots with no traffic and no deflections that aren’t point-blank.
While Petry and Nathan Beaulieu combine to accomplish nothing while double-teaming Evgeny Kuznetsov on the goal below, Price isn’t in the business of allowing wristers from the top of the circle to get past him.
If you watch closely you can also see that Price’s positioning is well off on this play. He gives Brett Connolly far too much of the glove side to work with and suffers the consequences.
Ultimately, there’s nothing here to suggest that perhaps the best goalie in existence won’t return to form soon. Price hasn’t suddenly forgotten how to deliver the kind of saves that made him who he is.
Recently, the Canadiens superstar simply hasn’t played his best, and he’s had a little bad luck to boot. It’s fascinating to see because it’s so rare, but that doesn’t mean it carries great significance.
Every human being in every profession is capable of having a bad couple of weeks, and despite a fair amount of evidence to the contrary, Carey Price is a human being.