Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price is known for being a man of few words and many saves. He only needed three words to convey what was getting in the way of his ability to stop the puck Thursday night.
“It’s all upstairs.”
Price was talking about his dismal performance against the Buffalo Sabres — a 6-5 overtime loss that saw him let in three goals in the first period alone — as well as his sub-par play of late. The 31-year-old has now let in four or more goals in his last four games, and has a very uncharacteristic stat line on the season: a 3.07 goals-against average, .892 save percentage and just four games with two or fewer goals allowed.
No one is doubting that Price will, indeed, rise back to his usual standards. We’ve seen him struggle and rise above it before and really, it’s still early. But for now, speculation spreads far and wide as to what is ailing him — understandable, considering his recent history of injuries. So, in a way, it was refreshing to hear the netminder admit to dealing with a few mental hurdles.
“When I first saw [Price’s comments] today, that’s the first thing I thought of,” retired NHL goalie Kelly Hrudey told Sportsnet on Friday. “I think that’s pretty brave of him.
“I don’t know, 15 or 10 years ago, it would’ve been very rare for a player to admit something like that, instead of just ‘I’ve got to work through it, I’ve got to be stronger,’ and the usual cliches. He understands, his brain is getting in the way and when that happens, it’s really difficult to play that position or to do anything, really.”
Hrudey knows a thing or two about the highs and lows that come with playing in goal, and while he said he can’t speak to what Price is feeling, he shared some insight into his own personal experiences with capturing and losing confidence in the crease.
“When you lose your confidence and you start to overthink, you’re in an area in which it’s really hard to dig out of,” Hrudey said. “You need some results to prove to yourself that you can get out of that and if you go back out there and you get lit up again, then you’re not getting affirmation that you’re a good goaltender. It just sort of compounds itself.”
And those mock cheers aimed Price’s way Thursday night?
“I don’t care what anybody says, that bothers you as a player. You try and brush it off, you try and be professional, but that’s really bothersome,” Hrudey said.
We’ve seen what happens when Price is at the top of his game, both on a single-game basis and spanning an entire season. Take the 2014-15 season, for example. His 44 wins, 1.96 goals-against average and .933 save percentage led the league in all three categories and Price earned the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie, the Hart Trophy as league MVP, and the Ted Lindsay Award as the most outstanding player as voted by his peers.
It was just a few weeks ago that Price stood on his head in a 33-save shutout against the Boston Bruins, a win that saw him pass Patrick Roy for second place on the franchise’s all-time wins list with 290. Only Jacques Plante has more victories in the Habs crease now, with 314.
That’s why it’s all the more jarring when he’s not at his best. He’s undoubtedly the backbone of the team, which is so far exceeding expectations on what has been a surprising season so far. The Canadiens sit third in the Atlantic, and would likely have a few more Ws beside their name right now had they gotten a few more clutch saves from the man in net. (It’s possible his place atop the Canadiens’ payroll, coming in at $10.5 million annually, is adding a bit of weight to his shoulders, too.)
Looking back on his own career, Hrudey reflected on the feeling of control that comes with success.
“In my particular case, when I was playing really well, I felt like a general back there,” he said. “I felt in total control and in command and it didn’t matter what the opposition would do, I felt like nothing they did would be better than anything I could do. So I had all the confidence in the world, thinking that I was better than Pavel Bure, or Brett Hull or whomever might have a scoring opportunity on me.
“It’s intoxicating, because to have that feeling of control is something that you never want to give up,” he continued. “You get this burst of energy and yeah, you feel really alive. Your senses feel more alive than on a normal day or at a normal time.”
But confidence is a funny thing – and you don’t have to be a pro athlete to recognize that. It can take ages to build it up, brick by brick, but it can be bowled over in one fell swoop. Look around the league, and you see hot streaks and cool skids from the league’s best goalies – Henrik Lundqvist can be King of New York one week but struggle the next, Frederik Andersen has a trend of poor season starts, and remember the great fall and rise of Devan Dubnyk? It’s not limited to goalies, of course – any goal-starved skater will tell you that much.
“When you’re not playing well, it’s amazing how narrow your vision gets,” Hrudey said. “When you’re feeling great, you seem to see the entire ice and you’re seeing players and it seems like the pace of play seems quite a bit slowed but when you’re struggling, it seems like the puck’s super small and you barely see the other players on the other team and what they’re doing, and that feels like a really desperate place to be.”
As a four-time Olympic gold medallist with the Canadian women’s national hockey team, Charline Labonte is well-versed in what it’s like to play in high-pressure situations and has a keen understanding of the unique skillset and mental strength it takes to play the position at a high level. And as a Quebec native and sports psychology consultant, she also understands the fervent hockey market that is Montreal – and how it can toy with an athlete’s mind.
“Being a goalie, yeah you play hockey but you’re really on your own. It’s you alone in your crease and you rarely have contact with your teammates. You make a good save, maybe they tap you on the pads, but that’s about it for the communication. You don’t have anyone to kind of give you feedback every time you come back from a shift, pick you up when you need to. It’s a very lonely and high-pressure position,” said Labonte. “It’s a tough job because you’re either the star or the reason why you lost. You’re never flying under the radar. You can’t be just OK.”
As Labonte teaches, “the lows are going to happen.” Look around the league, at the hot streaks and slumps, and that much is evident regardless of position. When working with young athletes, Labonte stresses the importance of mental training for this very reason, and preaches the power of preparation and resilience.
“When you’re in that situation, it’s tough to get out of it. I’ve been through it, and it’s not easy to just shake it up and go back to practice and just be OK. It takes time,” Labonte said. “He needs support and he needs to go back to the basics. For me, that’s what I would do. I would always refocus on, ‘what are, let’s say three things that I can do really well?’ And kind of going back. And I know [Price] is doing that a little bit with his goalie coach, Stephane Waite. You see him sometimes, he takes time out from team practices and just does his own thing with his goalie coach – very easy, basic stuff.
“Sometimes that’s what you need, and then you build the confidence from there.”