Hockey

How Carey Price has leveled up in the 2021 playoffs

When Carey Price returned home after winning Game 4 against the Winnipeg Jets, there was a gift waiting for him. Placed on the front porch of his Montreal home was a goalie stick. Strapped to the blade was the head of a broom, a neighborly acknowledgment of the Montreal Canadienssecond-round sweep, and Price’s leading role in completing it.

Price has gotten his share of gifts this postseason, most of them in the form of goals from teammates. In six of the Canadiens’ eight playoff wins, they’ve scored three or more goals. Price is now 15-0 in his postseason career when the Canadiens fill the net at least three times. Unfortunately, he’s played 81 playoff games.

Price, in turn, has gifted his teammates with an outstanding two rounds of goaltending. His .935 save percentage and 1.97 goals-against average lead the playoffs. He’s been steady and, at times, flawless. “He’s really in the zone and he wants to win. He gives us a chance to win every game,” said center Phillip Danault. “He gives us wings.”

Price has pitched one shutout, a 1-0 victory in Game 2 against the Jets. When asked about winning a game when one bad bounce could have tied it, Price simply replied, “It’s fun.”

There wasn’t much fun for Price before the playoffs. The 2021 regular season was one of the most underwhelming of his career: a 12-7-5 record with a .901 save percentage. His 3.3 goals saved above average ranked him 39th, right behind Chicago Blackhawks rookie Kevin Lankinen.

What changed? How did a barely above replacement-level goalie in the regular season flip the switch to become an MVP-level playoff performer almost instantaneously?


Stephen Valiquette has some thoughts.

“I’ve always had theories on him. When I saw him live, I always thought there was no chance that this guy doesn’t win a Stanley Cup,” said Valiquette, the former NHL goalie who is now CEO of Clear Sight Analytics and one of the sport’s foremost analysts on netminders.

“But I wondered sometimes when I was watching him this year if he was disinterested. If he was playing casual. If he was just not that excited to play in the regular season, because it didn’t mean anything,” he said.

Valiquette isn’t just playing pop psychologist here. Aspects of Price’s game in the regular season, specifically his positioning, led Valiquette to this theory. In analyzing the goals that Price surrendered in the regular season, Valiquette felt he was late to move on most of them. “He was on his own time. There was no urgency,” he said.

He points to the way Price played one-timers in the regular season vs. in the postseason as an example. It’s not just about a goalie moving laterally as fast as they can to defend a shot. There’s a lot of work that goes into proper positioning and having the chance to survey how the opposition is attacking the zone before stopping a one-timer — it’s all setup to a goalie’s ability to track passes and set their feet for the save attempt.

“There wasn’t a goalie worse on one-timers in the regular season than Carey Price,” Valiquette said. “Right now, in the postseason, he’s faced 26 one-timers and hasn’t allowed a single goal. Is it just that Carey can turn it on, because he knows it’s in him and he knows he can find his game when he’s working hard again? Is that what we’re seeing?”

Price is dialed-in during the playoffs in a way he simply wasn’t in the regular season. Per Valiquette’s metrics, Price has been the best goalie in the playoffs in expected goals against. He’s faced 292 scoring chances against and allowed 22 goals; based on Valiquette’s analysis, he should have allowed 32 goals. Price has faced 16 rebound shots in the playoffs and has allowed one goal against. “He’s playing his game, and it allows him to read the play,” Valiquette said.

But it’s not how many goals Price is preventing that piques Valiquette’s interest — rather, it’s about when he’s stopping them. “He’s been the best-performing goalie in the playoffs when the score is tied,” Valiquette said. “He’s stopped seven more goals than he should have allowed when the score is tied. That’s the one that shows that he’s dialed in.”

In the playoffs, Price has a laser focus that defies his regular-season performance.

“Hockey’s a funny thing that way. You never know when you heat up at the right time,” Price said recently.

It’s no coincidence that he’s heating up as the games matter much more than they did in the previous 56 contests.

Why wasn’t he motivated in the regular season? Valiquette notes his contract. Price is in the third year of an eight-year deal that will pay him $84 million by the time it’s done. His base salary was $9.75 million his season. It climbs back to $13 million next season. He made $30 million in his first two seasons.

“You can’t shame or blame a millionaire. But you can take away their ice time. I think that cuts deeper than you can imagine when you’re a player with his status for so long,” he said.

GM Marc Bergevin acquired goalie Jake Allen from the St. Louis Blues ostensibly because the team needed a stronger backup to Price in a condensed season. Allen ended up playing more games than Price (29 to 25) and putting up better numbers than Price in the regular season, earning a two-year contract extension in the process. This wasn’t strictly an insurance policy for Montreal. Allen was a former NHL starter, hence a viable alternative in goal.

Bergevin also made life a little less comfortable for Price by firing goalie coach Stéphane Waite — during a game on March 3, no less — and giving Price a new coach for the first time since 2013 in director of goaltending Sean Burke. Waite told TSN 690 Radio that Bergevin felt Price needed “a new voice, and that was very important for him that Carey has a good end of season and good playoff because maybe the next time it’s going to be his job.”

Price had his best month after Burke was promoted, but his season was cut short after suffering a concussion against the Oilers on April 19. He missed the Habs’ last 13 games but returned for Game 1 of the playoffs.

“The guys know that he’s going to rise at the right time — like now,” Montreal interim coach Dominique Ducharme said at the start of the postseason. “The guys know he’s going to be at his best. That’s why he’s got that impact on the team.”

His impact on the team can be measured in its distance to the Stanley Cup: As Montreal prepares to open its series against the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday, the Canadiens are eight wins from capturing the chalice for the first time since 1993.

In essence, Price is trying to have his Patrick Roy moment. In 1993, Roy took a Canadiens team that was fourth in the conference, strapped it to his back and won the Conn Smythe with a .929 save percentage and 21 goals saved above average.

The difference? Roy already had a ring when the Canadiens won in 1993. Price has everything — Olympic gold, World Cup gold, world junior gold — except his name on the Stanley Cup.

When he flips the switch in the playoffs, that’s what he’s flipping it for, according to Valiquette.

“His level of urgency has to be so high, seeing that he’s 33 years old,” he said. “When I’ve been around the stars — Roberto Luongo, Henrik Lundqvist — the only thing that matters is a Stanley Cup. They’ve got all the money. Fame? You don’t care about it at that point. It’s really about a Stanley Cup.”

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