This Montreal Canadiens postseason has at least thankfully reinforced the notion that goalie Carey Price can continue to perform in big-game situations. Just not at the opposite end of the rink scoring goals, which far from bodes well for the Habs moving forward… or them moving forward to the next round… like ever.
Canadiens’ Postseason Offense Sputters
True, they did technically beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games last summer. However, the Canadiens have failed to reach the official second round of the playoffs since 2015, missing them altogether in three of those seasons. Had Price not been coming off his Vezina and Hart Memorial trophy-winning regular season, maybe his play might not have been enough to secure that second-round berth. After all, in 12 games that postseason, they managed a pitiful 25 goals. As hard as it may be to believe, things haven’t exactly gotten better on that front.
In 2017, facing the wild-card New York Rangers in the first round, the favored Canadiens also laid an egg from an offensive standpoint. Despite scoring an average, 15th-ranked 2.72 goals per game that regular season, the Habs scored 11 goals in six games, less than two per game.
The Canadiens admittedly fared better last postseason, scoring 23 goals in 10 games. However, considering the two consecutive times they were shut out against the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round, that’s kind of like rejoicing when, sharpened stick in hand days after having run out of food, a squirrel innocently tramples into your campsite. And, ultimately, as a 24th-ranked team in the regular season that effectively got a shot at postseason play because of a global pandemic, the Canadiens far from killed it.
Nevertheless, the still-surprising play-in-round victory heightened expectations, even if primarily through the resurgent performance of Price that postseason, when he posted a top-ranked 1.78 goals-against average and second-place.936 save percentage. Ironically, at the start of this past regular season, with Price struggling statistically out of the starting gate and the Canadiens starting off with a dominant 5-0-2 record in January, he was seen as the weakest link.
Price Brings It Against Maple Leafs
While Price didn’t turn it all around, finishing the season with a mediocre .901 save percentage (2.64 GAA), he once again brought his ‘A’ game this postseason. His .920 save percentage through four postseason games is impressive enough that, in a vacuum, it would presumably be good enough to lead his team to victory. Of course, when you’re the team’s most valuable player, it means everyone else is playing worse than you are.
In this case, the gap once again is so significant that the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that has grown synonymous with playoff failure, are making the Canadiens look like an American Hockey League team. Considering Price actually lost to the Toronto Marlies on a conditioning assignment, it kinda fits, at least it would were it not for the fact the Laval Rocket these days are the pride of the organization as a whole. The big-league club, with a meager four goals in four games this series heading into action Thursday night? Not so much. Even with a four-goal “outburst” in Game 5, they needed overtime after having given up a three-goal lead to get that many.
Asked by the media about the lack of goal support following the team’s 2-1 loss in Game 3, Price said he wasn’t frustrated: “I believe in these guys. These guys are talented guys. I see their shots in practice every day and I have no doubt they have the ability to score goals.”
True, it’s hard to imagine an NHL goalie saying anything different under the same circumstances, regardless of how he actually feels. However, that response prompted a follow-up question to defenseman Shea Weber soon thereafter, to which the captain responded: “For him to step and say something like that, that he believes in the guys, I think it will give us confidence to break through here going forward.”
Forward Nick Suzuki echoed the sentiment the following day in pre-game comments: “We want to score goals for him. We want to win games. I think I like our chances tonight.”
Great, everybody’s on board, right? The Canadiens then promptly got shut out 4-0 in Game 4, with the Canadiens ending up down 3-1 on the brink of elimination Thursday evening. Even after staving off elimination, concerns legitmately remain.
It should be abundantly clear by now that Price is not enough for this team to win and insulating him with the likes of Shea Weber and fellow-shutdown-defenseman Joel Edmundson was not the right way for general manager Marc Bergevin to go. What good is Weber’s slapshot when it’s the most predictable weapon on a power-play unit that has yet to connect this postseason and has trouble simply entering the opponents’ zone?
Canadiens Need Offense More than Price
Even the return from injury of Brendan Gallagher, who perennially finds himself among the team’s goal-scoring leaders, has not been not enough to get this team on the right track, excluding the Game 5 win. It’s not that this team doesn’t need Price. It’s simply that the Habs need Gallagher on his game more. In five years, nothing has changed in that regard. With Price now 33, and five additional years left on his deal, that sentiment is only going to ring truer in time, the Habs requiring offense more and more as Price enters the twilight of his career.
Call a spade a spade. Canadiens management has wasted the prime of Price, who, for a span of maybe four seasons from 2013-2017, was the best goalie on the planet when healthy. That the Canadiens failed to consistently deliver those seasons is a bad omen as Bergevin continues to double down on this idea that Price is the secret to success. With exception to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2020, none of the Stanley Cup-winning goalies from that 2013-14 season on have objectively been elite netminders in the primes of their respective careers. And Andrei Vasilevskiy did beat a career backup in Anton Khudobin, who strapped the Dallas Stars to his back bringing them as far they went, to capture the title last season.
Granted, that technically means the Canadiens don’t need Price at the top of his game to win it all. However, with Price earning an average of $10.5 million against the salary cap each season, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Bergevin (or his successor) can build up a contender around him. With a no-movement clause in tow, Price is unlikely going anywhere either, unless he wants to of course.
Price can theoretically waive the clause and go unprotected in the upcoming Seattle Kraken NHL Expansion Draft. Being able to and wanting to are potentially night and day situations, though. It might be a bridge too far to assume he’d be willing to move to an expansion franchise that, the success story of the Vegas Golden Knights notwithstanding, would be expected to feature an anemic offense. Of course, compared to Montreal, Seattle is far closer to his native British Columbia.
If Price is asked to waive the clause (a big “if,” assuming Bergevin is still in charge) and he does, it would be a no-brainer for the Kraken to take him, as he adds instant credibility to any franchise. His performances these last few playoffs prove he’s still got something left in the tank.
The playoff demons Price carries around, having failed to win a game past the second round in his career, still remain, but they’re far from his alone. This movie on repeat has been playing on a loop long enough. He could probably use a change of scenery, whether it’s the city around him or a few of the bodies within the current organization. Whether those bodies are on the ice or in the boardroom, change is coming one way or another. For it not to would speak to a systemic issue far scarier than a lack of offense, which is saying a lot.