Carey Price’s biggest mistake this season may be overestimating his defence corps

It’s clear that Price isn’t at his best, but he’s not getting the support to work his way through it.

Sixteen games into the Montreal Canadiens’ season, the team sits in a playoff spot, among the top three seeds in a tightly contested Atlantic Division. The 8-5-3 record is respectable for a team that wasn’t expected to make much noise after the debacle of 2017-18.

In a season where over half of the teams are scoring at least three goals per game (18, compared to 13 clubs that held that pace until the end of last year), Montreal ranks near the bottom third in goals against per contest, with 51 surrendered in their 16 games. That position is actually an improvement for a largely unchanged defence corps that slotted 25th in that category one year ago.

Yet a slightly below average defensive performance is not what is expected from a team with Carey Price in net. In the first year of a new contract that has a salary cap value of $10.5 million per season (he actually gets paid $15 million this year, for those who would like an even bigger number for their income-based criticisms), he has a save percentage of .892, while the team allows more than three goals in each 60-minute stint he spends in the crease. He ranked 25th and 22nd, respectively, among the 34 goaltenders to start at least seven games this season as of November 7, and those positions will be even lower after a six-goal outing last night.

After stealing games — even full seasons — for a team that had no business contending for playoff positions a few years ago, and claiming every possible accolade for those efforts at the end of the 2014-15 season, he has only stopped nine out of every 10 shots that have come his way since the start of the 2017-18 campaign.

Part of that is due to injuries that limited his mobility, and there could be lingering issues from that this season. The main flaw in his game seems to be difficulty following the play, getting beaten on shots his typical, assertive positioning wouldn’t allow.

As a result, he seems to be thinking about every shot he faces, hesitating on which position to be in, when to drop to his knees to commit to a shot, and how he’ll react to players with several options for an offensive play.

In the last two games alone, there were instances of him selecting the most likely outcome and leaving it up to his defence the cover the others: those less likely to connect, but more likely to result in a goal if they do. In both cases, his defencemen were unable to limit the options, and the result was a goal against.

The first was the rush by the New York Rangers’ defenceman Neal Pionk on Tuesday. With the rookie racing into the zone on the left side, Price sealed the post to reduce the possibility of a short-side goal.

Instead he saw Noah Juulsen and Mikey Reilly unable to keep Pionk from cutting across the crease to cap off an incredible play for the eventual game-winner.

Defensive lapses were the name of the game for both sides in last night’s Bell Centre matchup with the Buffalo Sabres. It was a poor performance in the defensive zone for the home side in general.

On the first goal of the game, a pinch at the offensive blue line by Xavier Ouellet let the Sabres head up ice on a 2-on-1, with Victor Mete the lone man back. Price got out to the top of his crease to take away the shot of Evan Rodrigues.

But Mete wasn’t able to keep that as the only play Rodrigues had, and the puck made its way across to Vladimir Sobotka to begin the goalfest.

There was also the game-tying goal, on which three Canadiens skaters, including Jeff Petry, went into the circle hoping to claim the faceoff win, only the leave Jeff Skinner with half of the zone to himself.

Price has had his issues this season, allowing goals he would normally gobble up in recent years and smirk to himself that the player would even attempt such a shot. Last night’s overtime game-winner — on which Artturi Lehkonen actually did do a good job on the backcheck to keep Rasmus Ristolainen limited to an outside lane — was one such example. A slapshot with no change of angle is one that doesn’t get past Price when he’s on his game.

We have seen Price play well this year. In that previous game versus the Rangers, he made some exceptional stops in the first two periods to allow his side to hold a 3-2 lead with 20 minutes remaining. On October 27, he looked fully engaged in a 33-save shutout versus the Boston Bruins to win the 290th game of his career.

The team scoring better than three goals per contest should be enough to win on any given night with the netminder in top form. Indeed, if Price had enjoyed such offensive output at the beginning of this decade, he may have already held the franchise record for wins.

It’s clear that the 2018-19 version of Carey Price is not the same calibre as his younger self. His coach is aware of it, and Price himself knows he has a lot more to contribute for his team.

The only solution is to keep working through it. Perhaps the best way is to just react to what unfolds, forgetting about what the players in front of him should be doing and just pretending it’s him versus the world when he steps out on the ice. That’s not much of a stretch given the situation he currently finds himself in.

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