Simply put, if he’s even slightly off his best game, the Canadiens have little chance of winning. And if he’s completely off, as he was before the 29th-ranked Edmonton Oilers scored four goals on him in the first 23 minutes and chased him from what turned out to be a 6-2 loss Saturday, they don’t stand a chance at all.
"I pulled him hoping it would give us a bit of life, a bit of energy" said Canadiens coach Claude Julien.
Julien’s decision appeared to elicit the opposite response, which is no surprise.
When you look at how much of an effect Price had on the Canadiens chances of winning over the last five years, it’s no wonder he was able to establish himself as the consensus best goaltender in the world. Maybe at some point over his eight-year, $84 million contract that kicks in at the beginning of next season, Price won’t be forced to be that.
But in this season—the last of a six-year deal that pays him an annual $6.5 million salary—he has zero margin for error.
With Price well below standard through Montreal’s first eight games, the Canadiens could only manage a single win and they got off to the worst start to a season in 76 years. In his 10-game absence with a lower-body injury from Nov. 3-24, the Canadiens went 4-5-1 and had to squeeze an (above average) .924 save percentage out of third-string goaltender Charlie Lindgren to make it happen.
But it took Price’s superhuman .946 save percentage over games played from Nov. 25-Dec.2 to net the Canadiens a five-game winning streak.
You don’t need to be an advanced statistician to know that numbers like that are unsustainable—especially on a team that has been as defensively porous as the Canadiens have for three-quarters of their games thus far.
For as bad as Price looked on Saturday, it was a real team effort in losing to an Oilers team that has struggled so much it hasn’t won three consecutive games all season.
"I think every night you want to make things easy on him," said Canadiens defenceman Shea Weber. "He’s bailed us out so many times, you can’t even count. So you try and make it easy on him and we definitely didn’t come out the way we needed to."
A bad giveaway from Charles Hudon 7:46 into the first period gave Mike Cammalleri his first goal as an Oiler and his fourth of the season. Price probably should’ve stopped it. But the Canadiens weren’t able to recover from their own blue line, where the giveaway occurred, down to their own goal line on the play.
Two goals by Jhujar Khaira and assisted by Ryan Strome put the Oilers up 3-0. They were followed by Milan Lucic’s power-play marker at 2:24 of the second period; a play that looked like veritable fire drill in front of the Canadiens’ net, with every player in a red, white and blue jersey appearing completely discombobulated in the final seconds of Price’s night.
Antti Niemi came into the game for Montreal and held down the fort, while Canadiens forward Alex Galchenyuk was able to get the team on the board with a power-play goal at 13:44 of the middle frame.
But Niemi, who made 14 consecutive stops, couldn’t do anything to stem the tide after Brendan Gallagher took his second of two penalties in the first three minutes of the third period.
Canadiens defenceman Karl Alzner redirected Oscar Klefbom’s shot past Niemi for the power-play goal that made it 5-1 Oilers. And 30 seconds later Yohann Auvitu finished off a three-way passing play from Connor McDavid and Jesse Puljujarvi for the 6-1 goal—and this came one play after the Canadiens gifted Puljujarvi a breakaway.
Phillip Danault scored for Montreal to make it 6-2 with 4:02 remaining, but none of that changed how bad he and his teammates appeared on this night. They were out-shot 40-24 and out-chanced handily.
Weber had strong comments for anyone looking to hang the loss on Price.
"No chance," he said. "Why would you ever blame him?"
He’s right. It sure seems silly to do so when Price has to come up with miracles—even when the Canadiens play considerably better than they did on Saturday.
If you want to know why Montreal has invested more money in Price than any team ever has in their goaltender, it’s clear it wasn’t just because they wanted to; it was because they had to.
The game that dropped the Canadiens to 13-14-4 on their season made it that much more obvious.