I imagine that the job of being Carey Price's backup is bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, no one can reasonably expect you to play like Carey Price. On the other hand, that's the standard that is set on your team, and it’s natural for any competitive athlete to raise their own expectations of themselves to meet that standard. With the news that Carey Price will miss the Canadiens home opener tonight against the Pittsburgh Penguins while still recovering from the flu, Al Montoya is about to get a crash course in managing expectations.
Justin Blades touched on some of the issues facing the Habs following Saturday’s shootout loss to Ottawa, but correctly pointed out that Montoya’s play in goal isn’t one of them. He’s been very good in successive road games, which is exactly what an NHL team requires from its backup goaltender.
The Habs will need a third consecutive strong performance from Montoya tonight against the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Yes, Pittsburgh is on the second night of a back-to-back after an overtime loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Monday, and they are also without Sidney Crosby. However, their speed, forward depth, and rink-wide pressure will test the Canadiens’ systems. I’d venture to guess that Montoya will face even more high-quality chances, particularly in the form of transition rushes, than he did against Ottawa. Combine that with the pressure of the home opener at Le Centre Bell, and his 3rd consecutive start looks to be one of the more challenging assignments of his career.
With that in mind, I’d like to spend a little time reviewing the Senators’ opening tally in the first period of Saturday’s game. At first, this looks like a goal off of a one-man rush that Montoya could have prevented with better rebound control or a quicker reaction, raising some concern as to how he’ll handle the Penguins’ transition attack. On review, however, it’s not that simple.
As an unsuccessful 1st period Canadiens power play ends, Ryan Dzingel finds himself free and clear along the offensive right boards. He receives a pass from Dennis Wideman, and drives to the net with defensemen Andrei Markov and Shea Weber trailing to his left. Dzingel releases a quick snapshot from within the face-off circle. Montoya is ready and waiting, and easily makes the first save. The puck sits momentarily on the ice just in front of Al’s left pad, uncovered. Dzingel continues to drive the net and appears to put in his own rebound.
Dzingel’s snapshot is pretty well-placed, but Montoya is well-positioned, and saves it easily. The puck hits his equipment right where his catching glove slightly overlaps the top edge of his left pad.
Normally, a snapshot with this velocity will bounce off of the goalie’s leg pad to some degree, depending on the firmness of the pad face. Montoya's CCM model is a softer face pad, so it's designed to keep rebounds relatively close. However, likely because it partially deflects off the bottom of Montoya's glove, this puck drops straight down, on its edge.
The result of this unusual bounce is that Montoya's glove blocks his view of the puck until it rolls further out to his left.
By the time he locates it, Dzingel is on the puck, and jams it against the toe of Montoya’s left pad.
There’s a bit of a standoff now, with the puck wedged between Dzingel’s driving stick and Montoya’s resisting pad. You can actually see the toe of Al’s left pad deforming from the pressure, and the puck starting to squirt upward.
At this point, it’s still unclear what direction the puck is going to go. The deciding factor, unfortunately, turns out to be Andrei Markov’s left skate. As Markov goes by Montoya, his left toe drives directly through the junction of the puck, Dzingel’s stick blade, and the boot section of Montoya’s leg pad. This ends the standoff, causing the puck to release toward the net.
Montoya’s play here doesn't worry me. Goals like this are going to happen, even to Carey Price. Montoya is positioned very well for the rush, makes a good initial save, and then gets burned by some unfortunate hockey luck. Could he have maybe sprawled out and extended his leg a little once he finds the rebound? Sure, but it probably wouldn’t have mattered. It might have looked like he was doing more, but it’s unlikely to have been effective given the speed of the play and the path of Markov’s skate.
Al Montoya’s performance so far has met, and maybe exceeded, Habs fans’ initial expectations. The Canadiens were able to earn 3 of a possible 4 points in his two road starts to begin the season, and he has been solid, if unspectacular. Tonight, wearing the bleu, blanc, et rouge in the glare of the home spotlight against the defending champs, that might not be enough. A little of the spectacular may be necessary. Or just a little luck.