With the recent play of Carey Price and the moderate success of the Montreal Canadiens, it is easy to see that the team still lives and dies by their No. 1 goalie. It would be easy to argue that the coaching changes have been a big factor in this success, but it’s no coincidence that it correlates with Price’s stellar performance as of late. If Price didn’t improve his play, the Canadiens would be on the outside looking in when it came time for the playoffs no matter who was coaching.
Habs Started Strong Despite Price’s Mediocre Play
For the first 10 games of the season, the Canadiens went 7-1-2 and looked like they would be a force to be reckoned with, but by the end of February, they were only 9-6-5. They were the top-scoring team in the league and dominated most games they played during that first 10-game stretch; what was overlooked during this run was Price’s sub-par play. In the first month of the season, he had a record of 3-0-2 with a save percentage (SV%) of .898, and the Canadiens were 5-1-2. By the end of February, he was 5-4-3 with SV% of .889, and the team’s record was 9-6-5, including a five-game losing streak.
During February, Price’s numbers dipped even lower to 2-4-1 with a .880 SV%, which contributed to the Canadiens going 4-5-3. So, even with the strong start to the season, as his numbers declined, so did the team’s strong start; even though he was just mediocre in January, the Canadiens’ offence was making up for his play. In February, however, the offence went south, and so did Price, resulting in a below .500 record and a drop in the standings.
Allen Kept Canadiens Afloat
It wasn’t all gloom and doom during Price’s struggles; Jake Allen, the newly acquired backup, played some of his best hockey during the first two months. In January, he was 2-1 with a .933 SV%. At this point, Price was winning as well, even though he wasn’t playing great, so no one really worried about him. Once February ended, it was a different story; Allen had a record of 2-1-2 with a .927 SV%, matching Price in wins.
With Price’s struggles clearly on display and Allen’s fantastic play, it started a goaltending controversy. Many fans and media wanted Allen to start more and Price to take a back seat for a while, hoping that Allen could handle the reins while Price worked out his demons. Since the start of the season, both goalies were playing almost the same number of games over the first two months. Price only played four games more than Allen, playing 12 games to Allen’s eight in the team’s first 20 games. Allen might have saved the Habs from dropping out of the playoff picture by playing well enough for the team to get six of the 11 points they earned in February.
Coaching Change and Price’s Improved Play
By the end of February, Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin had seen enough and decided to fire his head coach Claude Julien and associate coach Kirk Muller. A week later, Canadiens goaltending coach Stephane Waite was also let go, which surprised everyone, including Price and Waite. He had already started working with Price to improve his game, but Bergevin felt it was time for a change. The Canadiens re-assigned scout Sean Burke and made him the director of goaltending and goalie coach. Because he was in the USA when his position changed, Burke had to quarantine so, until his arrival, the Laval Rockets’ goaltending coach Marco Marciano worked with Price.
Since Waite’s dismissal, Price’s play and numbers have been outstanding; whether this results from the change in coaches or Price just finding his game at the right time will never be fully known. For March, he is 4-1-2 with an SV% of .938, the team is 4-2-3, with Price playing all but two games. There have been subtle changes in his play, but nothing major, as we know star players usually don’t forget how to play overnight, but sometimes they develop bad habits.
More Games Could be Key to Price’s Success
When Allen was brought in as the backup, the main focus was to cut Price’s games down to give him more rest. At the start of the season, that was the goal, and the goaltenders were rotated accordingly by then-coach Julien, with Price playing only two of every three starts, whether it was back-to-back games or not. As this rotation continued, Price became more and more inconsistent, and as stated early, his numbers worsened. Allen, however, remained constant, which should be normal for a backup goalie who normally only plays once a week.
Since the start of March, Price has played the majority of the games — seven of the last nine — and his SV% for the season has jumped from .889 to .907. Not only is he playing better, but he also looks more confident, which is a key to success when it comes to goaltending; a goalie with no confidence will not find consistency in his game. In Price’s case so far, it seems that the more games he plays, the more consistent he becomes. Allen is still there to play when needed and should still get a fair amount of games, but for Price to be successful, he must play a few games in a row to keep his momentum.
There are still many talks that Price should be traded and the Canadiens would be better without him, but as the numbers show, the Habs’ success is largely defined by Price’s. Sure, you could argue if Allen started more, the Canadiens might have won more, but then who would want a $10.5 million goalie who lost his job?
Trege Wilson lives in Nova Scotia and is a member of the RCN. He is a life long Habs fan and is creator and co-host of the popular Canadiens podcast Habs Unfiltered.