I’ll admit it: I’m not an Al Montoya expert. I’ll also freely admit that I wasn't expecting my first goaltending post for Eyes on the Prize to be on Montoya. But Montoya is in, Carey Price is out, and, dammit, I’m a contributing goaltending analyst, and I’ve got a job to do!
So here goes.
The Montreal Canadiens opened the 2016-17 season with a 4-1 victory on Thursday evening against the Buffalo Sabres. The Habs did what they were supposed to do. They easily handled a weaker team (at least on the scoreboard) that was missing some key players.
Montoya did what he was supposed to do, as well. He made saves to maintain a lead, and never allowed Buffalo much hope that they were going to have it easy because Price was home with the flu (and freaking out an entire fan base).
Most would probably agree that the most significant save Al had to make was in the first period, when he denied Evander Kane on a short-handed breakaway.
Montoya flows a little deeper than I would like on this play, but he maintains his balance, makes Kane commit first, and flicks out his right leg for an important save. Kane probably could have beaten him high, but that’s not what happened, and it’s a good play by Montoya to show his new teammates that he’s got them covered if things go awry.
NHL goalies make breakaway saves all the time, so I’m not going into any more depth about that one. I’m also not going to deal with the only Buffalo goal, on which Al’s only real mistake of the night was giving up visual contact with the puck behind the net a split second early on a Sabres power play.
I’d like to focus, instead, on a sequence in the second period, one that tells me something about Al Montoya, and what Canadiens fans can expect to see when he’s between the pipes.
Midway through the second period, Kane gains the offensive zone and rims the puck around the end boards to Marcus Foligno. Foligno carries the puck behind the net, looking for a backhand passout to Kane, who has established position at the far top of the crease. Centre Johan Larsson (22) is also driving toward the net. As Doc Emrick of NBC Sports would say, “marvelous chaos” ensues. (I’m not going to go into detail on Shea Weber here, but let’s just say this wasn’t his finest moment.)
The Holy Trinity of broadcast-level Carey Price commentary is “Calm, Cool, and Collected.” This means absolutely nothing of value. Goalies look like that because they are controlled, balanced, and efficient. Price is always like that. It seems that Montoya is, as well — at least based on this sequence.
When Foligno drives behind the net, Montoya maintains visual contact on the puck and puck carrier as long as possible before pushing into a stick-side RVH*.
*For background reading, start with this 2012 InGoal Magazine article by Mike Valley.
The are two very good things for younger goalies to observe here. One is that he takes a split second to scan the slot area for threats, before refocusing on the play behind the net.
The second is that he anchors his back leg in his RVH, engaging his left inner edge with his left pad at a diagonal angle. In poorly executed RVH, even pro goalies will slide into the post with their back pad flat on the ice. Anchoring the back leg provides leverage for balance and transition, both of which Montoya is about to display.
Al’s core strength and balance is obvious as Foligno executes his backhand passout. Montoya angles his paddle to deflect Foligno’s pass, but his body position and centre of gravity don't significantly change.
Montoya easily tracks the deflected pass to the stick of the rushing Larsson. Note how he rotates his head and torso square to the puck while tilting his upper body forward and slightly down, leading his legs. The result is that he has maximum net coverage as early as possible, and he remains balanced through his core.
He also uses his anchored left leg to slightly push forward along the square angle to the puck that he’s already established. Foligno is actually impeding Montoya’s stick, but Al’s strength and balance make this inconsequential.
For the record, this is really classy goaltending. Montoya may look somewhat low, but he has completely covered the most likely puck trajectory. Foligno attempts to deflect Larsson’s shot, flashing his stick in front of Montoya’s eyes. He may even slightly touch the puck.
The puck hits Montoya near his crest, and he nearly cradles it in his glove.
Because Al is “tracking down” (i.e. his field of vision is down toward the play on the ice in front of him), he easily sees the puck bounce off of his glove cuff and out to his right. Again he leads with his head and torso before pushing with his left inside edge, so that his upper body and sealed right leg pad are in front of Foligno’s whiffed rebound attempt. There is virtually no room for the puck to get through, anyway — unless the falling Foligno could have flipped it near-side top shelf, which would have been nearly impossible.
After the whiff, Montoya simply continues his transition to a paddle-down near-RVH. He still maintains his upper body in a slightly more reactive position, very slightly off the near post. By the time Foligno does get his second rebound attempt off, it harmlessly deflects off of Al’s blocker along the ice, and into a safe zone behind the net.
Here’s the whole thing again:
This play is a very refined sequence by a guy who has NHL pedigree, if not elite status. Plays like this — even more than the Kane breakaway — should give folks in Montreal confidence that this year’s backup to Carey Price isn’t learning on the job, and won’t require the Habs’ skaters to adjust their expectations to a more chaotic style of play.
Management’s mantra this off-season was that they wanted more predictability and consistency in the defensive zone. If this first game can be read as a sign of things to come, Al Montoya was an underappreciated change to be applauded.