Going into this series, the Pittsburgh Penguins surpassed the Montreal Canadiens in skill and playoff experience: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin had no equivalent in bleu, blanc, et rouge and the Pens collective goal-scoring potential far eclipsed the Habs’.
With the benefit of hindsight, however, maybe the Canadiens weren’t the underdogs we made them out to be — not when they could count on Cerberus himself. Pittsburgh seldom managed to slip the puck behind the coverage of Carey Price, who fiercely guarded his cage, snapping at any puck or opposing player who dared come near him.
A .947 save percentage over four games more than deserves recognition. Price met and exceeded expectations. Montreal doesn’t get out of this series with the victory without him.
I have to admit I rolled my eyes at the idea he could do it but.. Carey Price in that 4 game series:— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) August 7, 2020
•Stopped 92 of 96 shots he faced at 5v5 (.958 save %)
•Stopped 126 of 133 shots he faced overall (.947 save %)
•5.7 Goals Saved Above Expected (via Evolving Wild)
But since I am not much of a goaltender analyst — I prefer to just enjoy the magic as it happens — what captured my attention were the numerous puck-plays of the Habs’ third defencemen.
The goalie possesses some of the talents of the best NHL puck-movers. His poise and route-finding abilities are such that it’s possible he could create some plays from the back end if he ever laced on player skates and enrolled for a few shifts at a lower level of professional hockey.
Okay, that might be a tad unrealistic; there is more involved in retrieving a puck and moving it up-ice for a defenceman than mental and stick-handling abilities. But the netminder definitely has at least those two aspects down.
Like all great puck-movers, Price starts by scanning the ice as the puck descends toward his trapezoid. He shoulder-checks a couple of times to assess the forechecking pressure and his support, and selects the best breakout path to get out of the zone. He remains deceptive in his pass preparation, as much as his large and cumbersome goalie equipment allows him to be.
Then, Price takes all the time the other team gives him. Coaches often talk about playing the game quickly, but on retrieval, it’s sometimes best to let the opposition commit to their approach, to let them get closer almost to the point where they can reach the puck before moving it away. By holding on to possession, Price attracts pressure on himself, but frees space for his teammates. As forecheckers collapse on him, his uncommon handling ability allows him to rapidly adjust the angle of his passes to send them to now-open areas.
The pass in the video above is one few goalies would dare attempt. The Penguins’ forecheck took away the walls as they hunted down zone (what they usually do in their approach) so Price sent the puck directly to his centreman in the middle of the ice.
Some of the better plays Price tried ended up as dumpout exits, but to no fault of the goalie. He set up his teammates for controlled breakouts by beating at least one layer of the forecheck. He made the correct play, but others simply couldn’t chain more passes to transition up-ice with speed.
At the top of his game, Price’s ability to support transitions almost as well as he stops the puck separates him from all other goalies in the league. He will continue to be the pivotal element of the team as they enter the first round of the playoffs.
The first round of the playoffs. That felt weird to write, considering where the team was just a few months ago. But it’s real. It’s there. The team has earned it and now they have to regroup, incorporate the lessons they learned versus the Penguins, and rise up to an even bigger challenge.