In the aftermath of a 6-5 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres at the Bell Centre on Thursday night, Price was visibly agitated and curt. The first question directed his way was about a sloppy game being tough on the goalies — the Sabres replaced starter Linus Ullmark with Carter Hutton after 40 minutes — and the Canadiens’ franchise player could have run with that general assessment, invoking “one of those nights” logic to duck responsibility.
Instead, he stepped into the line of fire.
“Um… let’s just cut to the chase,” Price said. “I just didn’t play very good tonight.”
While some version of that sentiment has been screamed in hard-talking corners of sports radio and the internet for a couple weeks now, the majority of observers — and certainly those on Price’s team — have taken a more measured approach. Because if ever you were going to cut a guy a break, if ever there was a goalie who deserved the benefit of the doubt while he worked through some things, it’s the one whose sparkling play over the years has consistently provided the Canadiens with wins they weren’t always worthy of top to bottom.
But after Rasmus Ristolainen — whose team held and surrendered four one-goal leads in this contest — blasted a three-on-three game-winner from the top of the circle through Price on the glove side, the optics were too much to ignore. This wasn’t all on Price — not by a long shot. That said, how many times in the past decade would five goals from the Canadiens not result in two points? The quick answer is, not too bloody many. Still, the short memories known to occasionally populate the Bell Centre surfaced late in the first period when Price, already beaten on three occasions in the opening frame, was serenaded with the same mock cheers he’s been subjected to at other times during the rare low moments of his career.
It that hard to hear?
“Of course it is,” Price quipped.
The subpar performance of No. 31 attracts so much attention for a couple reasons. The first is that, even after a rough 2017-18 season that saw him sidelined for significant swaths of the calendar with injuries, people simply assumed he’d bounce back just in time to start collecting a paycheck that creates a $10-million cap hit for the club. And, whether you’re Price or a pee-wee kid tending goal for your buddies, the nature of the position is such that sore thumbs won’t stick out nearly as much as you do when the puck seems like a pea.
Price had allowed at least three goals in his previous four outings before meeting Buffalo, posting an .867 save percentage over that stretch. He was actually razor sharp for much of his last game on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, but his play slipped in the back half of the contest as the Canadiens watched a 3-1 advantage turn into a 5-3 defeat at the hands of the New York Rangers. Price had no chance on a number of bang-bang goals notched by Buffalo, however that was in no way a consideration for him after Montreal lost consecutive showings for the first time all season.
“I’m just not playing as well as I did earlier,” he said, noting the issues are all “upstairs” right now and that he’d figure it out.
Montreal coach Claude Julien holds very clear ideas about how his goalie can get to a better place and they all involved the five guys in front of Price — the players whose mistakes don’t wind up looking like red wine spilled on a white rug — doing far more to help their goalie out.
“It’s a team thing,” Julien said. “We’re not playing well defensively in front of him, that’s pretty obvious. And when you’re not, you’re certainly not helping your goaltender who is trying to find his game. Put this game aside tonight, he’s been good — but I think everyone knows he can be great and he’s trying to find that part of his game that will bring him to that next level.
“But when you play the way [we did] in front of him, it’s pretty hard to find that part of your game. We were soft in front of the net, we were sloppy.”
Both players were wandering in different deserts a short time ago, Domi having been acquired from the Arizona Coyotes early in the off-season, while Tatar came over in the September trade that sent former captain Max Pacioretty (who returns to Montreal on Saturday) west to the Vegas Golden Knights. Domi’s three assists versus the Sabres gave him 19 points through 16 games this season, while Tatar — who tapped in a two-on-one saucer pass worthy of the Smithsonian from Domi in the middle period — now has 14 points in 16 contests. Heck, even Matthew Peca, who signed as a free agent in the summer, got in on the action, notching his first goal as a Hab and kicking in a helper, too.
But all of that — in addition to goals from Jonathan Drouin, Andrew Shaw and Nicolas Deslauriers — went for naught. And, if they’re not careful, the good vibes Montreal built with its surprising start could completely evaporate soon.
“It’s been a couple of games now and it’s important for us to come back on Saturday and play a solid game,” Julien said. “We need to stop [the poor play] as soon as possible.”
That requires better overall performances from a lot of people. But guess which one we’ll focus on until things change?