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Eyes on the Price: Give Price a Chance

Claude Julien needs to fix the defence so Carey Price can do his thing.

NHL: New York Islanders at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday night’s thrilling 3-2 shootout victory over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden was Carey Price’s 258th victory in a Montreal Canadiens uniform; the same number as Ken Dryden. He marked the occasion with a highlight save that the two of them will certainly be able to admire, years from now, at Price’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony. (For a more in-depth look at, yes, that save, click here.)

Unfortunately, his 259th victory will have to wait until at least Saturday night in Toronto, as the Habs fell at home, 3-0, to the New York Islanders on Thursday.

These games against the New Yorkers continued a couple of narratives about Carey Price and the Canadiens defence, and again showed Claude Julien that he has some significant work to do with his new team before the playoffs come around.

For example, in the clip below, the Rangers’ Rick Nash (61) gets two breakaways due to defensive miscommunication and poor spacing between Jeff Petry and Andrei Markov. Price bails out his teammates on the first with some textbook breakaway technique against Nash’s deke attempt.

Jeff Petry actually deserves some slack on the second, even though Nash ultimately scores on the play. He closes on Nash just before the Habs’ blue line, and it appears that he disrupts Nash’s stick with his own. The puck bounces, then ricochets off of Petry’s toe directly onto Nash’s stick blade as he races in on Price. This may have also momentarily confused Price’s read on the play. Unlucky.

I’ve spent several posts discussing Carey Price’s hands this season, most recently after Saturday’s game in Winnipeg. In certain situations, he has a tendency to use a passive, blocking butterfly technique in which he straightens up his shoulders, lowers his hands, and allows them to move slightly backward. This leaves him vulnerable to shots just adjacent to his upper arm and shoulder. It represents the only consistent vulnerability that I’ve seen in Price’s game.

Watch Price’s glove drop precisely as the puck reaches him, and raise back up just as the puck passes him on its way to the back of the net.

Nash’s goal is a quick shot from mid-range on a straight-on net drive, which can be difficult to read. Zdeno Chara’s blocker side finish on February 12 is another example.

Earlier this season, we reviewed several examples of Price showing more passive hand action when screened on the penalty kill, and there have been additional subsequent examples.

Price will also sometimes default to a blocking position on rapid passing plays, such as Mathieu Perreault’s game-winner for Winnipeg last Saturday, which we also reviewed.

In other words, when Price faces difficult chances on which he has some doubt, this is the safety blanket to which he reverts.

However, when Price is confident in his read, his hands are spectacular.

Watch, for example, how he stones the Rangers’ Jimmy Vesey during Tuesday night’s shootout. In a penalty shot situation, as compared to an in-game breakaway, he has more time to focus on the shooter and read his intent. Price’s glove doesn’t move an inch until the puck is in the pocket. It stays forward of his body and at its starting height, which completely covers the top corner of the net.

His glove is perfectly efficient against Mats Zuccarello’s first-period slapshot as well.

And on this save against the Flyers’ Jake Voracek from earlier this season.

As for his blocker, watch how active it is on this 2-on-1 against the Islanders on Thursday night.

The defence

I realize this discussion of the minutiae of Price's hand action seems a bit obsessive, but it fits into the larger picture of the defensive difficulties that the Canadiens are demonstrating on a nightly basis.

On Tuesday evening against the Rangers, Oskar Lindberg victimizes Price off of Jesper Fast’s crossing pass for the Rangers’ first goal, on a play that two defensive-minded NHL veterans simply shouldn’t allow. On this particular sequence, Price reads the play confidently, but ends up having absolutely no chance to stop the puck.

The possession begins deep in the Rangers’ zone. Henrik Lundqvist makes a save on Artturi Lehkonen, Lindberg (16) collects the puck, and circles behind the Rangers’ net. He takes the puck out of the left corner as Fast (19) breaks to the centre.

Lindberg hits Fast with an outlet at the Rangers’ blue line, and Fast carries the puck through the neutral zone. Lindberg drives up the centre of the ice as well.

When Fast reaches the Montreal blue line, Alexei Emelin attempts an ill-advised challenge. At this point, Emelin should take an angled approach against the much speedier Fast, hoping to physically engage him and either drive him wide, below the goal line, or angle him into the boards and force him to delay his rush. Instead, he takes a poorly judged, more aggressive angle, reaches forward, and partially loses his balance as Fast blows by him.

Andrew Shaw surreptitiously takes Pavel Buchnevich (89) out of the play in the high defensive zone. Lehkonen attempts to disrupt Lindberg’s path, but holds up short of drawing an interference penalty.

This is now effectively a 2-on-1 on Shea Weber, with a wide puck-carrier and a centre net drive. Weber has his eyes to his left on Emelin and Fast until he reaches the hash marks, then he quickly identifies Lindberg.

It’s always interesting to watch the goaltender’s head and eyes on these plays. When Fast drives past Emelin, Price looks out to the center of the ice to assess the threats.

He sees that Weber has accounted for Lindberg, and he knows that Fast has an unimpeded path to the net for a low angle shot or drive. As Fast angles toward the net, Price retreats to the post, and assumes a “V-H” position with a slight post overlap. This technique, appropriately based on the situational read, has the sole purpose of fully defending against Fast. Price is trusting Weber to handle Lindberg.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happens. Fast unexpectedly loses an edge, and as he is falling, he directs a pass toward the top of the crease. Weber hasn't engaged Lindberg, but instead has continued to retreat on a direct line toward the near post. He has turned toward the pass and is therefore unable to check Lindberg’s stick, but neither his stick nor his skate are in position to deflect the pass itself.

Fast’s pass eludes Weber, passing just inside his left skate and under his lowering stick shaft, and Lindberg is free to deposit it past Price from just inside the near top of the crease.

As on Saturday in Winnipeg, this is a play that Weber and Emelin simply can’t allow. This was the second game in a row in which a goal resulted from Emelin poorly defending a puck carrier, and Weber allowing a physically smaller player to disengage from his check and establish an unchallenged scoring position.

On Thursday night in the Centre Bell, the Islanders’ Anders Lee scored another goal against the Weber/Emelin pairing that really ties this whole discussion together.

This is exactly the kind of play that allows opponents access to Price’s situational vulnerability. Lee flashes in from Price’s left at full speed, unchallenged, and is able to shift the puck to his forehand. It’s nearly exactly the same move on which Price stones Vesey in the shootout on Tuesday night, except that Lee is moving much faster, and he’s closer to the net. When Lee releases his shot, Price is lowering his right pad in an effort to slide across if Lee continues. At the same time, his shoulders become slightly more upright, and his glove drops down and in toward his body.

As a result, unlike Vesey’s (left), Lee’s shot passes directly over Price’s glove, just next to his shoulder. It’s a perfect example of the difference in how Price plays a situation in which he has confidence in his read, and one in which he feels exposed.

With that in mind, it’s worth understanding how the play unfolds to put Price in a vulnerable position. Weber and Emelin once again figure prominently.

Josh Bailey (12) acquires the puck off the defensive wall and eludes a sweep check by Weber.

He flicks the puck between his legs to John Tavares (91), who takes it to centre ice, and gives it back to Bailey on the left wall in the near neutral zone.

Lee (27) skates diagonally across the neutral zone to the right offensive blue line, ahead of the play. He crosses in front of both Weber and Emelin along his way. Tavares continues to the right, entering the offensive zone behind Lee, as Bailey carries the puck across the blue line.

Bailey beats Max Pacioretty into the zone, with Pacioretty on his left hip. He pulls the puck from his forehand to his backhand, moving to his right, and drawing the attention of both Weber and Emelin.

Lee, meanwhile has continued down the right wall, circling behind the single layer of Canadiens defense. Bailey flips a delicate backhand that Lee receives all alone inside the faceoff dot to Price’s left, moving at full speed.

He shifts the puck to his forehand and, as we discussed, beats Price over his glove for the Islanders’ second goal of the night.

Weber and Emelin aren't the only ones deserving of criticism on this play, of course. Had Pacioretty or Alex Radulov more aggressively continued their backcheck, either might have been able to intercept Lee in the slot. However, the defencemen bear most of the responsibility.

Emelin could have stepped up aggressively to challenge the puck-carrier, with Weber dropping back behind to deal with Lee and Tavares. Weber could also have made a more aggressive stand at the blue line, recognizing that a delay for Bailey might draw Lee offside. Failing that, he could have skipped his weak attempt at a sweep check just inside the blue line — his second on this sequence — and focused more specifically on intercepting either Bailey’s pass or Lee’s net drive.

Instead, none of the Habs make an effective defensive decision, and their passive engagement allows a rush that begins as a 3-on-4 for the Islanders in their own defensive zone turn into a 3-on-1 that targets Emelin and frees Lee for a prime scoring chance.

Sure, the other defencemen have had their problems as well. Nathan Beaulieu committed the turnover that led to Joel Armia’s goal in Winnipeg. Petry and Markov have had some miscommunications, such as the Nash breakaway, or the coverage mistake that led to Anthony Beauvillier’s opening goal on Thursday. However, those are issues that Claude Julien should be able to fix with a little practice and role redefinition.

Besides, even though NHL players are going to score sometimes, Price has shown that he relishes the opportunity to bail his teammates out from breakaways and coverage lapses where he has a read on the play.

The most significant problem facing Claude Julien and Carey Price over the last three games is that the Canadiens’ top defensive pairing of Weber and Emelin are failing to execute fundamental defensive hockey plays, and continue to allow scoring chances that either give Price no chance to make a play, or put him into the high-difficulty situations in which his one vulnerable tendency can be exposed.

Julien has only been on the job three games, but he doesn’t have a whole lot of time to fix much of what ails his new team defensively. The good news is that the objective is pretty simple, even if the path isn't quite clear yet.

The Canadiens don’t need a defensive system to protect their all-world goaltender. Carey Price can handle just about anything, as long as the Habs give him a chance.