The notion of a general “book” on Carey Price remains as laughable as it was two seasons ago when the Boston Bruins announced they had found the key to beating him: shoot high through traffic.
As Price himself pointed out, this magic formula will beat every goaltender in the league, if you can somehow both put up bodies in front and manage not to hit them with your high shots. Some goaltenders have obvious exploitable weakness dictated by their style, or clear strengths you should avoid, if possible. Jonathan Quick plays at such an aggressive depth he is especially vulnerable to back-door plays. Pekka Rinne catches the puck so well, even on low shots and shots into the body, that you have to shoot wide blocker side if you hope to generate rebounds. Tuukka Rask is prone to explosive anger when things are going poorly, which compromises his otherwise elite play.
Carey Price’s style offers no evident weakness, and no disproportionate strength. As a result, you have to look a lot harder to tell when he’s off his game. Tuesday’s effort versus the Penguins provides a rare example.
“Off his game?” you ask, indignant. “You must be kidding! He stopped almost 94 percent of the shots he faced. He was the difference!” You’re right, of course. Price was the difference, but this was despite his off night. Perhaps Price’s greatest strength is his ability to drag himself through a game when the flow just isn’t there.
Signs of Struggle
There used to be two Carey Prices: the unbeatable, unflappable star, and the average looking, inconsistent victim. The latter Price seems to be dead, and Montreal’s goaltending coach Stephane Waite, hired the summer before Price’s ascension, has been credited with the kill. He encouraged Price to limit his depth and get low, making the goaltender far more efficient and powerful in all his movements.
When Price is struggling, elements of his old game creep back in, turning his masterful crisp control into (relative) chaos.
Sign One: Depth Excesses
Pittsburgh’s first goal was described as a “perfect shot” by some commentators, but Beau Bennett only managed to pick the hole he did because Price, uncharacteristically, gave it to him. Slide to the 1:40 mark:
Price, seeing a pass threat evaporate, moves too aggressively to challenge the shooter. This usually has the effect of taking away more net, but past a certain point the returns diminish, and the risk ramps up. Playing out that far makes it hard to maintain the angle line as you adjust to the puck carrier’s change of position: Price moves slightly off his line, and Bennett takes full advantage. When he’s off, Price tends to regress to old habits like this, sapping the control he’s become known for.
Sign Two: Sliding Excesses
Unlike many goaltenders, Price maintains his feet when following the puck on lateral passes high in the zone. He is fast enough to get there, and usually arrives before the puck with time to gain some depth if a shot threatens. When he’s off, however, Price retreats into an old security blanket, and slides across more frequently. This exposes Price high, of course, but more troublingly, it significantly slows his ability to move for the next pass.
A related problem is Price’s tendency to overslide when he’s off his game. Normally, Price’s slides are small and efficient, covering only the distance required to recover the angle line. When he arrives, he plants the far skate to stop and either sets for the shot or recovers to his feet. When he’s struggling, however, Price doesn’t engage the lead skate as quickly, lengthening his slides and delaying his recovery. If you notice Price “drifting” like this, be prepared for a far more “exciting” game than you’re used to seeing.
Sign Three: Puck-handling Excesses
Although he doesn’t get the same credit as goaltenders like Mike Smith and Ben Bishop, who aggressively clear pucks and launch long-distance breakaway passes to teammates at centre ice, Carey Price is, quietly, one of the best puck handling goalies in hockey. It’s hard to see this unless you’re looking closely, however, and that’s a good thing. Price gets a lot of touches, and quickly, efficiently, effortlessly distributes the puck to a teammate almost every time, enabling the breakout to begin more quickly.
When he is not in his usual flow, however, Price holds onto the puck longer, and starts looking for less obvious, more aggressive passing options. The effect is evident and terrible: his seamless, nearly unnoticeable ease with the puck turns into a series of adventures and near misses.
Does it Matter?
Even when Price is struggling, and his game has lost its usual automatic ease, there is no guarantee you’ll have an easy time against him. It’s common to see struggling goaltenders collapse entirely, and look almost relieved to be pulled from the burning wreckage of the game. Price, on the other hand, runs around inside the inferno with a fire extinguisher, desperately trying, despite his compromised tools, to keep the house standing till everyone is out. His late-game save on Crosby is paradigmatic.
Price looks tired in this sequence because he’s a heartbeat behind the play at every point. He follows the puck from behind the net, and gets low, his upper body leaning far right to see around the screen. He picks it up as it’s passed across, but his weight is on his right foot thanks to his low lean and late visual attachment, making his push over less effective. His upper body is leading his legs, which creates a lumbering effect. He keeps his feet, but arrives a touch late, preventing him from setting properly. This leads to a poorly-directed rebound; Price recovers to his feet in a low, wide, immobile stance to cover as much net as possible against the shot threat. He has almost no base to push from when the pass is made to Crosby, but Price engages what little leverage he has to make a weak, half-extended slide toward the puck – and stops it. If Crosby had noticed the way the whole play developed, and how little net Price could reach, there’s no question he would have waited a half second longer and hit the open shelf.
There remains no book on Carey Price when he’s inhabiting his usual zone of mental sharpness. When he’s off and forcing his game, however, he has exploitable tendencies opposing teams would do well to note: it could have made an important difference for the Penguins.