It’s official! Carey Price is going to return to the Habs lineup tonight for the first time in nearly a year. No, there’s not going to be a goalie controversy in Montreal - even if he’s a little rusty. After last season, though, it’s good to know that the guy backing him up has already proven that he can answer the call when necessary.
Only three games into the Montreal Canadiens’ 2016-17 campaign, it’s already a clichéd understatement that Al Montoya has been an early season revelation for Habs fans. In Tuesday’s home opener, the Habs took advantage of a Pittsburgh Penguins squad that had lost in overtime to Colorado on Monday night. Montoya produced his strongest performance yet, recording 35 saves in the 4-0 victory.
Leading up to Tuesday evening’s game, I was most interested to see how Montoya and the Habs would handle Pittsburgh’s speed. Quite well, as it turns out. It appeared to me that although the Pens had plenty of high-quality and transition chances, the Canadiens defense did an excellent job of funneling rushes toward consistent lanes, and preventing any rapid lateral puck movement. Montoya once again demonstrated excellent positioning and solid post coverage techniques; despite a few dramatic net-front scrambles, he was more than a match for the Penguins’ offense. He also got some of the luck that had eluded him in Ottawa Saturday night.
This play doesn’t really need the full breakdown, does it? A shot, a funny bounce, a good offensive play, and a puck directed along the only possible path it can take so that it doesn’t bounce in off of Al himself!
I’d like to examine, in depth, what I thought was Montoya’s most significant save. It occurs just under 4 minutes into the first period, with Pittsburgh pushing back after Max Pacioretty’s goal 23 seconds after the opening puck drop.
After Alexei Emelin loses a puck battle to the ageless Matt Cullen along the right offensive neutral zone boards, Cullen distributes it to Conor Sheary, who is flying up the ice in support. Sheary cuts to the center as he enters the offensive zone, and Chris Kunitz joins in on his left to create a 2-on-1 against rookie Mikhail Sergachev. Sheary gives up the puck to Kunitz, and slightly widens the separation between the two forwards as he continues toward the net. Sergachev correctly follows Sheary to prevent any return pass, leaving Montoya and the backchecking Max Pacioretty to deal with Kunitz. Kunitz hesitates for a split second, then rips a low short-side wrist shot, which doesn’t get past Montoya. The rebound kicks forward, but Emelin is there to knock the puck away from Cullen, with help from Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher.
Above all, this is just really exciting hockey. The Penguins stormed to their Stanley Cup championship on precise, lightning-fast transition plays just like this one, but the Canadiens defend it well. Sergachev does a good job to simplify the attack, Montoya makes a nice save, and all five Habs recover back into the defensive zone.
It’s also very interesting goaltending sequence to review. The first thing to notice is how Montoya reads the play. Sheary is the primary puck carrier, but he has defensive attention. There isn’t a forward to Sheary’s right, but there is space to his left, which is being filled by Kunitz. Montoya maintains his focus on the initial puck carrier until there is no chance that Sheary can pull the puck back in and shoot.
Only then does he shift his focus to Kunitz.
So far, Montoya has played this perfectly, but what he does next warrants a closer look. It appears as though Montoya waits through Kunitz’s hesitation, then makes a good reactive save with his right leg. That’s not what actually happens.
Once Sheary passes the puck, Montoya pushes to his right, dropping both pads to the ice in a butterfly slide.
He then engages his right inside skate edge to re-establish his position in line for Kunitz’s shot.
NHL shooters understand the goalie position, and understand where their targets should be. Just before he releases the puck, Kunitz is looking at the net.
He likely sees that Montoya is positioned to prevent a shot back against the flow to the far post. He also likely sees, or senses, that Montoya is raising up into his stance. At this distance, with upward momentum, Montoya would probably stop a top corner snipe (like the one that beat him from closer range against Ottawa on Saturday night, for example).
Now, I’m sure Kunitz wouldn’t tell me what he was thinking, but I’d venture to guess that he aims inside the near post, wide of Montoya’s blocker, just high enough to clear the top of his right leg pad, shooting low as Montoya rises onto his skates. It appears that Kunitz just misses his target, shooting slightly closer to Montoya’s body than he had intended.
When Kunitz shoots, Al is transitioning up and out of his butterfly slide. That transition has caused his blocker hand to move higher, along with his body, and very slightly closer to his side. His reaction to Kunitz’s shot is impressive. He reaches down with his blocker to make the save, and drops into his butterfly. The puck deflects off of his blocker, hard and fast, and directly onto the boot section of his right leg pad as he establishes his butterfly. The rebound bounces out to his right and into the face-off circle.
The concern that I have watching this play is the butterfly slide that Montoya uses to put himself in position for Kunitz’s shot, even though he executes it perfectly. This is not a desperation play requiring a butterfly slide for maximum low net coverage. Al knows that he is going to be facing a shooter with time and distance, which is why he correctly controls the length of his slide and attempts to re-establish his stance before the shot. The problem is that this is an inefficient move.
When goalies and goalie coaches are interviewed, they often talk about how they are working on trying to “beat the play.” This is a good example to understand what they're talking about, because isn’t as simple as it sounds. Al arrives in the proper position on the ice before Kunitz shoots, but he hasn’t actually “beaten the play.” He drops, slides, engages his right skate, and raises into his stance. As a result of the time this all takes, he is still in motion when Kunitz releases his shot. Kunitz, I believe quite correctly, senses where his chance to score is, but he just misses his spot.
This isn’t meant to discredit Montoya, or imply that he just got lucky on this play. He does three really good things here that allow him to “make his own luck.” First, he reads the play correctly, shifting his focus to Kunitz only after he is sure that Sheary is no longer a threat to shoot. Second, he does take away Kunitz’s far post and high corner shooting angles, again showing his strong positional sense as well as good edgework. Third, he shows quick reflexes and excellent body control.
But… Had Montoya remained on his skates when he pushed to his right, he would have been able to arrive at his desired spot sooner, and set himself in his stance before the shot. From a stable, ready position, he would have been better able to direct the puck safely into the corner with his blocker. In other words, he would have “beaten the play,” and he might not have needed any luck at all to help him cement his place in the hearts of Habs fans.
It’s been fascinating to watch this season-opening Al Montoya trilogy, and learn about his game. On Tuesday, he showed he could handle the pressure of a Montreal home opener, got a little bit of good luck, and shut the door on the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Every goalie, even Carey Price, has a crack or two in their armor. Al Montoya’s seem to be pretty small. That’s good to know.