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Eyes on the Price: The puck handling factor

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Carey Price’s first period puck handling led directly to Phillip Danault’s opening goal, and helped the Habs dominate the Red Wings

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Carey Price is going to lose a hockey game eventually. It’s just not clear how, exactly, that’s going to happen.

Saturday night in Montreal, Price and the Canadiens thoroughly dominated the Detroit Red Wings, 5-0, on the first leg of a Detroit-Chicago Original Six back-to-back weekend. (Al Montoya manned the net for Sunday’s narrow 3-2 loss in Chicago.)

Detroit hardly knew what hit them. Phillip Danault scored early, Paul Byron added a shorthanded breakaway goal, and Shea Weber scored on a power play to close out a 3-goal first period.

It seems almost irrelevant to say it these days, but Price was tested several times against the young Red Wings. Dylan Larkin, for example, had a terrific chance midway through the first period to change the momentum of the game. Price was not impressed.

In addition to his impenetrable play in front of the net, Price’s puck handling created a clear advantage for the Habs on Saturday night.

Price isn’t a very dramatic puck handler. He rarely rims it high off the glass, or attempts a long stretch pass. Like everything else he does, though, he handles the puck with ruthless efficiency.

Price played the puck with his stick 7 times during the first period of Saturday’s game. Here’s 6 of them:

Every one of these six plays results in a Canadiens possession, either a zone exit or a controlled regroup. The seventh, which was Price’s second touch of the period, led directly to Danault’s opening goal:

The Habs coaching staff clearly deserves some credit here as well.

Notice that on the plays that Price handles the puck behind the net, the Red Wings lead forechecker comes around the net from Price’s left. Price, and the Habs, must have prepared for this. For example, on the very first play, watch how calmly Price controls the dump in on his backhand, pivots to his forehand, and makes a simple pass to Jeff Petry in the deep right corner that draws a second Detroit forward below the goal line.

Not once during the period does a Canadiens’ defenseman come behind the net to get the puck from their goalie. On these plays, Price is designated as the primary distributor of the breakout. The defensemen stay wide, giving him right or left outlet options, and he holds the puck long enough to draw at least one forechecker to him.

This creates an odd-man advantage deep in the defensive zone to start the breakout, which is important given that at least half of Montreal’s defensive personnel are less inclined to carry the puck up ice themselves. On this first play, for example, even though Torrey Mitchell obtains the puck below the face-off dot, there is ample time and space to exit the zone because of the deep puck movement that has already occurred.

Only a sterling cross-ice defensive recovery and pass block by Detroit’s Tyler Bertuzzi (59) prevents Daniel Carr from having a breakaway down the left wing.

Let’s examine the goal that Phillip Danault scores. As usual, Price’s technique is flawless as he controls Detroit’s long dump-in.

He scans the ice as he leaves the crease.

He calmly controls the puck.

He looks up ice again.

He positions himself in such a way that in addition to having the option to play the puck along the boards to either corner, he has enough space to adjust and pass up ice from his forehand.

Watch Price’s eyes.

He’s anticipated this entire play. He sees that Tomas Tatar (21) is actually responsible for two Canadiens, Alexei Emelin and Danault, and that Frans Nielsen (51) is coming in behind Danault (out of picture view).

He holds the puck long enough to be sure Tatar is committing to block a pass to Emelin in the corner, and for Danault to cut to the middle in front of Nielsen. He threads his pass just next to the goal, and hits Danault on the tape.

Danault chips it to Andrew Shaw, and the Habs are off and running. By the time Shaw gets the puck, there are 3 defenders behind him.

The play doesn’t really materialize into a true odd man rush, but the Habs forwards have all the momentum from their own blue line forward. Enough chaos ensues during their relentless attack that the puck comes loose in the crease behind Jimmy Howard, and Danault is rewarded for his initial awareness and full-ice pursuit with an easy pop-in.

Danault’s goal provides the perfect example of the Habs’ remarkable early season success. It’s the result of preparation, effort, and execution.

And it all starts with Carey Price.