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Eyes on the Price: Momentarily confused

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Carey Price might be human after all.

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been quite a week since the Canadiens gave up 10 goals to Columbus last Friday night. Thursday evening in Montreal, the Habs completed a new 3-game win streak with a 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings, and Carey Price faced less than 25 shots (23) for only the second time this season.

Price did give Anze Kopitar a golden chance to score on him on Thursday night at the Bell Centre. Unfortunately for Kopitar, luck wasn’t on his side.

Price must have been upset at the Kings’ captain for not taking advantage of his earlier gift, because just before Tyler Toffoli notched the Kings’ lone tally on a 3rd period power play, Price added this save to his spectacular early season portfolio, again at Kopitar’s expense:

Price becomes tangled up with two Jeffs, Kings’ forward Carter (77) and Habs defenseman Petry, and is knocked backward. The puck bounces back to Toffoli (73), who shoots wide. Carter gathers the loose puck and passes to Kopitar (11) in the left slot. Price, sprawling on the ice, gets his glove up into the mid-section of the net. The puck deflects off of the cuff of Price’s glove, and out of play.

Amazingly, this wasn't even the save of the night in the NHL:

Neither of these two saves was of particular strategic importance, however. The Habs led the Kings 3-0 going into the 3rd period, and the game was no longer really in doubt by the time Price robbed Kopitar. Miller’s remarkable save prevented an empty net goal, but the Canucks were already down by 2.

Kopitar’s earlier missed opportunity, though, came at a time when a Kings goal could have changed the momentum of the game.

With the Habs leading 2-0 early in the 2nd period, Teddy Purcell (9) takes the puck down the left wing, chased by Paul Byron. Kopitar fills the right lane for what looks like a 2-on-1 against Alexei Emelin.

Byron catches up to Purcell, who shifts the puck to his backhand. Price is preparing for a cross-ice pass. His head is toward the puck, but his stance is already opening toward Kopitar.

Purcell makes his diagonal cross-ice pass.

The puck eludes Alexei Emelin’s stick, but deflects twice - first off of Byron’s back skate, then off of Emelin’s left skate - before releasing out in front of Kopitar.

Kopitar doesn’t shoot, but instead drives past Price below the goal line on his backhand.

He eludes Price’s left pad and glove, pulls the puck from backhand to forehand behind Price, and has an empty net into which he can tuck the puck.

(As an aside, I always wonder what effect a player’s teammates have on his approach to different game situations. For example, Anze Kopitar has practiced against Jonathan Quick for his entire career. He’s probably used to having a goalie aggressively challenge him near the crease. Does that make him more likely to attempt the play he does, rather than try to flip a backhand past Price? It’s an interesting question, I think.)

At this point, the old Forum ghosts intervene. Kopitar doesn’t quite control the puck on his forehand, his shot slides across the goal line, and deflects off of the far post.

The puck is cleared by the hustling Jeff Petry. Major kudos to Byron, who remains engaged with Purcell until he is well behind the net.

This is an unusually imprecise sequence from Price. For comparison, take a look at this save on Nick Cousins from the game against the Flyers on October 24. Sure the play is different, but notice how decisive Price’s cycle of retreat, reposition, and attack is against Cousins:

As compared to the current Kopitar play:

When Purcell shifts the puck from a shooting position on his forehand to a more protective position on his backhand, the offensive rush becomes less well defined. Often in that case, as with the Cousins play, Price will retreat farther into his crease in preparation for a more aggressive diagonal cross-crease and forward push, on his skates, toward the eventual shooter. His path would usually look more like this:

Against this Kings rush, he commits early to a butterfly slide across the crease, on a more direct path:

It’s hard to fault Price initially, either for his decision to slide or his path, because he’s expecting a cross-ice pass and a quick left-handed shot from Kopitar once Purcell shifts the puck to his backhand. As the play develops more erratically, he realizes that he isn’t quite square to a potential backhand from Kopitar. He responds by trying to rotate as he slides across.

He’s better aligned, but when Kopitar doesn’t shoot, Price can't control his momentum across the crease.

The real issue for Price is the orientation of his upper body, which appears to completely change once he sees that Purcell’s pass isn’t a clean one. This is one of the few times this season that I’ve seen Price’s body “sag.” His “tail” is almost on the ice, and his shoulders are behind his pads.

Sliding with his upper body in this position, he doesn't have the ability to check his lower body momentum. He’s completely defensive. All he’s able to do is what he does, which is try to extend his left foot into Kopitar’s path, and twist his upper body further backward to his left.

If Price keeps his shoulders and hands forward and his “tail” up higher during his slide, as he usually does, he might still have options. With his center of gravity more forward, he could potentially stop his slide with his left skate, recover to his feet, and adjust to whatever Kopitar does next. Alternatively, he could lift his right knee, engage his right inside edge, and get a controlled push from the edge of the crease back to the goal line when he sees Kopitar’s path. At a minimum, he might have been able to more fully rotate his upper body and stick toward the goal line and have a better chance at a desperation play against Kopitar’s strong move. Instead, his momentum takes him completely out of the crease, and out of the play.

Although this appears at first glance to be an aggressive challenge gone wrong, it’s actually the opposite. Price seems confused by what happens on this sequence, and that leads to an unusually passive breakdown in his positioning and body discipline. As a result, he isn’t able to execute an aggressive recovery once he sees things go awry.

Is this a complete nitpick? Absolutely. Kopitar didn't score, the Habs are undefeated at home, and Price hasn't lost a game anywhere on the planet since last October. In a week full of surprises, though, maybe Carey Price was just trying to assure us that he’s human after all.