NEW YORK—You can’t pin a loss on a single player when your team has a two-goal lead with fewer than 23 minutes left to play and ends up squandering it.
That’s why Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien abstained from answering when he was asked to evaluate goaltender Carey Price’s performance following his team’s 5-3 loss to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday.
“I’m not talking about any individuals, because I think as a group we weren’t very good,” Julien said. “At the end of the day, we made a lot of individual mistakes, a lot of mental mistakes. Whatever it is, it was self-inflicted.”
No one would argue with that.
The Canadiens, who had averaged four penalties per game in their first 14 contests, took five in the second period alone and eight total in their 15th.
In the first period, they allowed three two-on-ones and got burned on the third one when Chris Kreider deposited the puck into an open net.
In the third period, the Canadiens sat on their heels and allowed the play to come to them—and it did in waves.
Price wasn’t to blame for all of that, but the fact remains that he didn’t allow the Canadiens to leave New York with two valuable points in the bank.
If you were plotting a storyline prior to the game, you’d have circled his name and said, “Price has to be the difference if the Canadiens are going to sweep this back-to-back with the New York Islanders and Rangers and come home with a 9-4-2 record.”
He was the only rested player on the visiting side who was playing against a rested Rangers squad. His teammates were coming into their fourth game in six nights, their third game in four nights, and coming off a dramatic, come-from-behind win in Brooklyn that went beyond the distance, finishing on extra shots taken in the shootout.
They needed Price to come up with the goods.
For more than half of Tuesday’s game, he appeared primed to deliver. He covered almost all of the mistakes in front of him and made it look easy in the process.
Price didn’t have a chance on Tony DeAngelo’s point shot, which found its way through a maze of bodies and brought the Rangers to within a goal with 2:15 remaining in the second period. But he coolly pushed aside Grade A chances from Kreider, Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes, as well as two each from Jimmy Vesey, Mika Zibanejad and Lias Andersson.
Things changed though when a harmless-looking point shot from Marc Staal hit Price in the shoulder and dropped right in front of him for Pavel Buchnevich to sweep into the net with 8:25 remaining in the third period. Everything unraveled from there.
With 2:44 to go, and the teams at four-on-four, Rangers defenceman Neal Pionk traveled the length of the ice, walked around Canadiens defenceman Noah Juulsen like he wasn’t even there, then cut from left to right in front of Price and tucked the puck in around his pad.
Zibanejad’s shorthanded goal less than a minute later came once the damage was already done.
Price said afterwards he “mis-tracked the puck” on Buchnevich’s tally and added that he felt could have made a better play on Pionk’s move.
“I don’t know if it was just mental fatigue or what it was,” he said. “But we didn’t play smart hockey and I didn’t make the saves at the end of the [game] to hold us in there.”
If we’re calling a spade a spade, the Canadiens have played smart hockey on most nights but it’s been an ordinary start (at best) for Price in his first of eight seasons carrying a $10.5-million cap hit.
He ranks 27th in save percentage among goaltenders who have appeared in at least seven games this season, and he has a goals-against average of 2.81 in 11 starts.
That’s simply not good enough.
It hasn’t cost the Canadiens much in the standings, which is a fact general manager Marc Bergevin was all but celebrating when he met the media at the beginning of last week and said he was content with the team not relying on Price to get off to its impressive 6-2-2 start to the season.
But Bergevin—and Canadiens fans—won’t be too forgiving if Price doesn’t begin inspiring more faith in his ability to be the difference on any given night. You know, the way he did on a consistent basis from 2012-17, as he built himself up as the consensus-best goaltender in the world.
Tuesday’s game was an opportunity for the 31-year-old goaltender to distance himself from a horror-show 2017-18 season that saw him post the worst numbers of his career and open himself up to more doubt than he had ever faced beforehand.
But he let it slip away. And you know that every bad goal he allows and every subpar performance he offers pushes him further away from silencing those who say that last year was the beginning of his downfall and not just an anomaly.
That’s a lot for Price to reckon with, on top of swallowing his portion of the blame for how things turned out for the Canadiens against the Rangers.
He didn’t lose the game for Montreal on his own, but he didn’t give the team enough of a chance to sneak away with a win.