MONTREAL — As the Pittsburgh Penguins mobbed overtime hero Brandon Tanev, Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price stood in his crease expecting the play to go to video review, for the goal to be overturned and for the game to continue.
On the play in question, Penguins forward Teddy Blueger charged the net in possession of the puck. The lefty, coming down on his strong side, swept to his right, shot the puck off Price’s right pad and then made just enough contact with Price’s left pad to move him slightly off his post. The rebound off Price’s pad was then deposited into the net by Tanev.
Price waited, but not too long before the NHL’s Toronto-based situation room ruled there was no goaltender interference on the play.
Whether or not they were right in their assessment is up for debate, but here’s what’s not: Price deserved better on this night.
“He was outstanding,” said Artturi Lehkonen, who accounted for the Canadiens’ goals in the 3-2 loss that sunk his team to seven points back of the Tampa Bay Lightning for third place in the Atlantic Division and kept them six points behind the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card team, the Philadelphia Flyers.
“He was outstanding tonight for sure, and we should have found a way to win the game,” Lehkonen added.
But they didn’t. They lost for a fifth consecutive time. The fought hard — they always do — but the result was just the same, and the frustration was palpable thereafter.
It got the better of Price, who was decent in October, uncharacteristically horrible in November, terrific through most of December and not good enough in Montreal’s only other game in January. We, as in every media member in the dressing room, asked to speak with him about his phenomenal, 34-save performance and the goal that might have cost him and the team a much-needed win, but he rejected the request that was relayed to him by the Canadiens’ public relations staff.
A thought often repeated by my grandmother — and maybe yours, too — came to mind. Something about saying nothing at all when you don’t have anything nice to say. And knowing that Price runs on the scorching side of hot when he loses, whether he plays well or not, I understood his decision. Even if I disagreed with it.
I’m not excusing it, but I understood it, because the situation he’s in right now would be overbearing for anyone. Price is no stranger to the pressure of playing in this market, but he’s certainly not immune to the constant criticism directed his way.
Yes, it’s true he’s paid handsomely to stop pucks. At $10.5 million a season, nobody makes more than him to do it.
But he’d have to be a robot to not be at all affected by the arrows shot his way — the ones fired even when he plays well. And on this night he played superb, but even he knows that people will say he wasn’t able to make the difference in the game. And a questionable call in overtime won’t change that.
And his obvious disagreement with the call probably wasn’t the only thing Price was frustrated about.
One would assume the 32-year-old wasn’t thrilled about Nick Suzuki making a line change at the least opportune second in overtime — while the Penguins were in full possession of the puck at their own blue line and reloading to attack the Canadiens with speed — that turned the winning play into a 2-on-1.
And Price couldn’t be thrilled about teammate Max Domi failing to cover Tanev, because Domi — who notched an assist on Lehkonen’s first goal to extend his point streak to nine games — was the opposite of thrilled with himself after the game.
“His stick was right there,” Domi said, “It’s just a matter of getting under it, not over the top of it.”
Yep. That’s a mistake.
In covering Price since his first days in the NHL back in 2007, I admit I don’t know him anywhere near as well as his family and friends do, but I know him well enough to know he probably wasn’t all that happy with the quality of chances the Canadiens gave up in periods one, two and three before it got to overtime.
“Probably in the first period we come out of there 1-1 because he made some good saves,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien, who unintentionally undersold Price’s performance with that comment.
There was the breakaway save on Tanev early on, and the breakaway stop on Jared McCann in the dying seconds of the first period. And then there were the stops made in between on two 2-on-1s and one half-breakaway.
“We could have been down multiple goals if he hadn’t been there to save us,” said Lehkonen about Montreal’s first period.
Take that and repeat it on several of the 10 shots the Penguins notched in the second — with Price’s best save coming on a full-blown Superman sprawl to take a wide-open net away from Bryan Rust after Evgeni Malkin turned 21-year-old Canadiens defenceman Cale Fleury inside-out and stormed in for the 2-on-0.
Price had no chance on the goal Rust scored in the third period, and he came up with 13 more saves to just about singlehandedly earn the Canadiens their first point in five games.
So yeah, to see Tanev’s overtime goal count when this one below scored a season ago by Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Strome was recalled is understandably frustrating — and not just for Price, but for teammate Phillip Danault, who was on the wrong end of a 50-50 call in a recent loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.
“I didn’t get an explanation for that,” Danault said. “But even though I was trying to back away, I was trapped in and there was contact in the crease, and I guess that’s how they see it.”
Usually, contact in the crease that impedes a goaltender from making the save leads to a goal being overturned — if not on the ice in real time, then afterward in the review process.
But that wasn’t the case in this situation, and, for what it’s worth, officials from the league’s office told colleagues at Sportsnet last season that the Strome goal should have counted in the end.
Regardless, the players and their coaches have no idea what to expect in these situations.
“I can tell you what I said at the beginning of the year,” said Julien. “It’s 50-50. Just like the challenges. It depends how you see it. I can’t comment on something I don’t know why they called it a goal, so I can’t comment on it.”
Price abstained. He also abstained from offering the same frank assessment Julien gave regarding his teammates and their performance in this game.
“I thought as a team our decision-making at times was poor tonight,” the coach started, “And it created some scoring opportunities for Pittsburgh, and even cost us the game at the end. That’s what is disappointing. Because we all know that right now we can’t really afford to not be sharp mentally, and I thought that was the biggest challenge for us tonight.”
Price was as sharp as he’s ever been, and he’s probably more frustrated than anyone about the outcome.