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Eyes on the Price: Breaking Down Breakaways

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Carey Price, mano a mano.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at New York Rangers Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Keep Calm and Carey On -

News Flash— Carey Price is NOT calm.

Carey Price is a mass of competitive fire, formed in the perfect shape of a human goaltender, contained within the exoskin of a mild-mannered, small-town Canadian.

The Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews found that out on Saturday night in Toronto. Bearing down on Price for what he thought would be an overtime game winner, one that would complete his hat trick and rain down thunderous delirium from the home crowd, Matthews picks his spot and fires.

Thanks for playing Auston!

Matthews’ shot deflects off of the top of the shaft of Price’s goal stick and up into the netting. In a rare, Lundqvistian moment of self-expression, Price shows everyone exactly what it means to him to be able to win hockey games while wearing the Sainte-Flannelle. Even better than Price’s reaction is that of Maple Leafs’ mascot Carlton the Bear.

Feeding off Price’s save, Tomas Plekanec wins the ensuing face-off, he and Andrei Markov execute a perfect 3-on-3 overtime stretch rush, and Andrew Shaw seals the deal with the kind of play that Habs fans were hoping for when he was signed in the offseason.

Shaw’s goal gave the Canadiens a much-needed 3-2 overtime win. Price notched his 259th victory in the Habs crease, allowing him to pass Ken Dryden for the third-most in team history.

Price’s save on Matthews was one of several plays last week that nicely demonstrated the basic techniques of breakaway goaltending.

The essentials boil down to these — the puck carrier has to decide to either shoot or deke; the goaltender’s purpose is to account for both options, and force the player to decide quickly.

The basic technique can be summarized in one letter — Y.

The goaltender challenges out of the crease and establishes an appropriate gap to defend against an early shooting option, retreats partially as the puck carrier advances, and is prepared to move diagonally backward to either the right or left post if the player decides to deke rather than shoot. Ideally, the goalie’s positioning forces the player to commit to one of his two options before the goalie’s heels reach the top of the crease. (Feel free to Google Breakaway Goaltending Techniques for everything you ever wanted to know, and plenty you don't need to!)

Last Tuesday night in New York, Rick Nash had two breakaway opportunities. On the first, he chooses to deke, and Price denies him.

Nash is alone from the red line. Price aggressively challenges, pushing out nearly to the hash marks by the time Nash crosses the blue line.

As Nash begins to approach through the slot, shuffling the puck back and forth from forehand to backhand, Price begins to retreat. He remains well outside the crease, and stable in his primary stance. His positioning clearly has discouraged Nash from shooting as a first option, because Nash shifts the puck wide to his backhand as he crosses the hashmarks.

At this point, Price has dictated the terms of the engagement, and he knows it.

Nash advances with the puck on his backhand. Price can see that Nash’s stick is aligned perpendicular to the goal line (yes, goalies do stuff like that), which is not a position from which he can shoot. Price moves diagonally back and to his left in response. He knows that he has the move covered should Nash continue on his backhand path. However, Nash still has plenty of room to shift the puck back to his forehand and either shoot or reverse direction, so Price confidently stays on his skates. He may also see that Nash’s skates are changing direction.

Nash does cut back across the crease, pulling the puck wide to his forehand in an attempt to sneak the puck past Price’s right leg. Price explodes across the crease to his right, pushing off of his left inside skate edge and firmly sealing his right pad on the ice.

Nash’s attempt to slide the puck inside the post is denied by Price’s right pad.

This is an important image for young goaltenders.

Price has directed his push so that his lead (right, in this case) skate will cross to the outside of the post. If his leg is inside the post, Nash might be able to bank the puck in off of Price's pad. If Price’s skate hits the post, it will stop his body momentum and leave space between his shoulder and the post for an elevated puck to sneak in over his pad.

Price’s momentum carries him past the post, but he is under control and able to recover as the play continues harmlessly to his right. Crisis averted.

Nash does score on a subsequent breakaway on Tuesday night, and it’s interesting to note how the play develops differently.

Jeff Petry battles Nash as he receives the puck. Price, possibly unsure of the outcome of the puck battle, sets his initial challenge well back compared to the prior sequence.

When Price retreats on this play, his momentum takes him inside the crease by the time Nash’s shot reaches him.

In this case, Price allows Nash to dictate the terms of the engagement. Nash’s shot is actually well inside the iron.

Even if, as we discussed previously, a more stable glove action might have allowed Price to catch this puck, his initial positioning and deeper retreat allows the Rangers forward a large enough target that he can fire away with confidence.

Saturday night’s overtime save against the Maple Leafs is a different animal altogether.

Matthews’ chance begins at the Leafs’ blue line. Shea Weber turns the puck over, and Matthews speeds at Price unimpeded.

Price challenges well outside his crease, though not quite as far as he did when Nash was coming directly down the center of the ice.

Price retreats slightly as Matthews speeds in on him, but maintains an aggressive position and stance, attempting to entice the Maple Leafs rookie into a decision as he reaches the hash marks.

Matthews makes a brilliant play. He shuffles the puck over a short distance, hoping to read any cheat by Price, then quickly pulls it to his forehand and shoots.

Matthews’ release is lightning quick.

It’s also deceptive. He is skating down the ice slightly on Price’s glove side, his skates are angled straight ahead toward the glove side post, and his chest is also aligned in the same direction. At the last split second he opens his stick blade to his left, and wires an inside-out snapshot to Price’s top blocker corner.

Price isn't quite fooled by the shot, but Matthews’ release is so unbelievably quick, and his shot so accurate, that Price can’t possibly react in time to get his blocker out onto it.

As compared to Nash’s goal, though, Price is still outside the crease when Matthews’ shot reaches him, meaning that he has given his opponent a less comfortable shooting window.

Unfortunately for Matthews, Price’s stick butt is there to deflect the shot.

Although it seems like an unlucky break for Matthews, this is not unusual, nor is it accidental. In an upright goaltending stance, the stick shaft normally extends from the goalie’s hand to the top corner of the net, effectively bisecting the open net corner above the blocker. (Photo below from December is at an angle, but note the stick handle.)

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Price maintains his fundamental stance as Matthews bears down on him, and he is rewarded for his patience and confidence. Price’s stick handle functions exactly as it should, as an obstacle guarding the top corner.

Obviously, there are additional variables involved in different situations, but these sequences nicely demonstrate the basic fundamental principles of breakaway goaltending.

Price stops Rick Nash’s deke because his position and technique coax Nash into a play that Price is fully prepared to defend. Nash scores on his quick shot because Price is less confident on his initial challenge, retreats defensively, and allows the Rangers forward an easier opportunity than Price would like.

Price's battles with Nash make for an interesting technical comparison. Matthews’ breakaway in Toronto, though, represents everything that is special about hockey. It features an outstanding rookie phenom making a brilliant play with an important game on the line, and a consummate pro confidently denying the kid his home ice glory in a one-on-one confrontation.

Regardless of the arena, or the level of hockey, a goaltender’s ability to successfully defend a skilled breakaway chance requires an understanding of fundamental goaltending principles, preparation and practice in the basic techniques, the confidence to rise to a challenge, and the competitive fire to expect to emerge triumphant.

Carey Price’s public demeanor shouldn't fool anyone. Calm has got nothing to do with it.