This was a possibility from the start.
After missing 70 games from November of 2015 through April of 2016 due to knee injuries, goaltender Carey Price was going to jump back into hockey at its highest level at the September World Cup before having to guide his Montreal Canadiens through a condensed 2016-17 schedule.
A bout of fatigue was inevitable.
The fact that it’s hit Price just past the halfway point of Montreal’s season should be slightly concerning for Canadiens fans.
“Slightly” being the operative word.
We are talking about the consensus best goaltender in the world, and this seven-game slump—which Price is undeniably embroiled in—isn’t likely to define what’s otherwise been another banner year for him.
But as he told La Presse’s Marc Antoine Godin in Winnipeg on Tuesday morning before he was set to back up Al Montoya in a 7-4 win for Montreal over the Jets, he’s found this year’s schedule to be taxing.
“It’ll be good to disconnect for a few days,” he said.
Price was referring to the five-day break the Canadiens have from Feb. 13-17, which is still 14 games—six of them to be played in back-to-back situations—away.
Price’s patience—and his resolve—will be tested, especially when you consider that extra trip to Los Angeles he’ll have to make to serve as the Atlantic Division’s captain for the NHL all-star game.
It’ll be tough, but we’re still willing to wager that Price’s performance in Minnesota on Thursday, which saw him allow seven goals for the first time in a game since March of 2013, is going to be the low point of what will prove to be a forgettable stint of his season.
Canadiens coach Michel Therrien isn’t panicking.
“[Price’s recent play] is the least of my concerns,” he told reporters in French after Thursday’s loss.
The coach knows any type of struggle for Price will be magnified.
It’s only natural when you consider the goaltender has set the bar impossibly high over the three years that preceded this one—posting annual save percentages north of .930 and collecting the NHL’s most prestigious individual awards and an Olympic gold medal along the way.
Extending his lifetime record with Team Canada to a perfect 16-0 by the end of the World Cup all but eliminated any pre-season concerns there might have been about whether Price could still perform to his standard. And his early showing with Montreal—building up a .936 save percentage through his first 24 games—destroyed any lingering doubts.
So it’s only natural that the first thought running through everyone’s mind when they see Price’s save percentage dip from .936 to .922 over his last seven games is: “Something must be wrong with him.”
The slide started when Price allowed three goals against Minnesota in a game at the Bell Centre on Dec. 22.
Price allowed four goals six nights later, as the Canadiens blew a 3-2 lead and lost in overtime to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
In his next start, Price and the Canadiens went down in identical fashion, in Pittsburgh, on New Year’s Eve.
Outside of a stellar performance in Montreal’s win over Nashville on Jan. 3, the month has been statistically unkind to Price.
Numbers don’t lie—and neither does the eye-test in this case.
It catches you off guard to see Price allow a goal on the short side—or one from the point on an unscreened or untipped shot—because it’s been such a rarity that he’s done so since the onset of the 2013-14 season.
It’s been impossible to ignore that more of those types of goals have gone by him since the beginning of December.
But Price told Godin nothing is physically ailing him.
“I can’t complain,” he said. “It’s a tough sequence from a statistics standpoint, but I’m not too concerned about that.”
Maybe it’s because Price has some perspective about the roster he’s been playing behind since top-line centre Alex Galchenyuk suffered a knee injury back on Dec. 4.
With David Desharnais going down a game after Galchenyuk, and with Andrew Shaw, Andrei Markov and Greg Pateryn missing significant time in subsequent weeks, the Canadiens have been heavily dependent on AHL depth.
In spite of everything, the team has still managed to collect 22 of 36 available points to them in the standings, allowing themselves to maintain a stranglehold on the Atlantic Division over that time.
If Price had been truly concerned about the state of his game, he might have opted out of Thursday’s shellacking before the third period got underway.
Therrien said afterwards that Price was presented with that choice during second intermission but declined.
“Nobody else has the opportunity to get pulled from the game so I’d rather just stick it out with everybody else,” Price told reporters.
“Regardless of what the score is in any situation, I just try and focus on my next shot,” he said. “Whether it’s 7-0 or 1-0 or whatever the score is, it doesn’t matter to me.”
It will matter to Price if he can’t overcome this bout of fatigue and refocus himself from here to the beginning of the February break.
It would be normal for any goaltender to round back into form over a certain grace period.
But Price isn’t just any goaltender.
The expectation will be that he find his best self in a hurry.
No matter how quickly Price does it, the Canadiens will have to monitor him closely from here to the end of the season, and they’ll have to use the advantage they’ve built up in the standings to properly manage his workload.
Anything to avoid another possibility—of him being burnt out when it matters most.