Canadiens longing for real Carey Price as margin for error narrows

Matt Cullen scored a goal and added an assist to help the Minnesota Wild double up the Montreal Canadiens.

It was 10 seconds of action that made you wonder who the guy wearing No. 31 for the Montreal Canadiens was.

He didn’t bear even the slightest resemblance to Carey Price, the consensus best goaltender in the world. Granted, he looked a bit like the Price we’ve seen in the early part of this season—the guy who came into Thursday’s 6-3 loss to the Minnesota Wild with numbers unbecoming of an average goaltender, let alone those of a terrible one.

Before Price and the Canadiens flew to Minnesota he was asked about his .883 save percentage and his 3.64 goals against average.

“I don’t feel like statistics mean much going into any particular game,” he said. “It’s all about the way you feel and the way you prepare for each game.”

There’s little doubt Price was prepared for Thursday’s contest. He had Sunday off, he was rested on Monday when backup Al Montoya took to the net for Montreal’s 8-3 win over the Ottawa Senators, and he had a couple of practices to get ready for the Wild.

There was even less doubt about how Price was feeling before the game was barely five minutes old. It was a real head-scratcher watching him overcommit to Matt Cullen’s shot, which was heading wide before it caught Price’s pad and slipped right through his legs and into the net for Minnesota’s first goal at the 4:46 mark of the first period. It was even more baffling when Price went to routinely stop a puck behind his net and start the team’s breakout and ended up coughing the puck up to Wild defenceman Matt Dumba.

Who was that guy clumsily stumbling back to his net as Dumba’s shot found the top corner to make it 2-0 for the Wild 4:56 into the game? Surely not the same Carey Price who has appeared virtually unflappable for the better part of the last five seasons. It couldn’t possibly be the guy who the Canadiens gave an eight-year, $84-million contract extension to this past summer.

We have little doubt that Carey Price will re-emerge long before that new deal kicks in at the start of the 2018-19 season, but right now he’s nowhere to be found.

You could say the Canadiens were ill-prepared to start the game in Minnesota. You wouldn’t be out of line to suggest it. But, at worst, they should’ve been down 1-0 after the first period due to a goal Price had no chance on, scored by Tyler Ennis in the 16th minute.

Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty failed to cover teammate Brandon Davidson’s ill-timed pinch at the offensive blue line, and Canadiens defenceman Jeff Petry hesitated to make a decision defending the 2-on-1 play that began with Cullen’s perfect saucer pass and ended with Ennis’ perfect shot. Unforgivable mistakes all around.

But it was Price’s wobbly start that made that goal the third one of the period instead of the first one. And it could’ve been worse, as he searched for point shots that hit him and trickled through his crease and as he scrambled to find his angles on even the most innocuous of shots.

A rush play, which began just before the 12:09 mark of the second period, ended with Wild defenceman Ryan Suter sliding a puck right through Price from an odd angle. And if you took a freeze frame of where Price ended up after the puck got by him, you’d have seen him sitting two feet left of his post, trapped in his butterfly stance and wondering what just happened.

It’s an image that betrays what we’ve known about Price for as long as he’s been the No. 1 in Montreal (and in the world); that his positioning is his bread and butter.

It was after a game last season—I can’t recall which one—that I asked Price to point to his best save of the night. He had made many of the spectacular variety, but he chose not to single out any of those. His answer revealed much about his trademark positioning.

“Probably the one that hit me right in the middle of the crest,” Price said.

That’s the Price we know. When he’s at his best, the majority of the shots hit him right in the middle of the CH Logo on his jersey. Heck, even when he’s a fraction off, that’s where most the shots end up.

Seeing how few of Minnesota’s 27 shots hit Price in the middle of the jersey on Thursday was recognizing how far he is from his best right now.

The timing of that is particularly troubling.

Brendan Gallagher and Andrew Shaw gave the Canadiens life in this one with late goals. The team pushed hard to even things up. That effort resembled what we’ve seen from them of late, as they strung together three wins in their last four games to start clawing their way back from a disastrous 1-6-1 start to the season.

They look like a team that’s starting to figure it out, but the margin for error right now is practically zero for the Canadiens. They need to collect 86 points in their remaining 69 games to get to 95 points, which is what it took to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference last season.

They need the real Carey Price to return in order to come even close to pulling it off. They better hope the guy who wore No. 31 on Thursday stays in Minnesota.

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