All Clark Kent needed to turn into Superman was a phone booth.
Apparently, all Carey Price needs to turn into the Boogeyman is playoff hockey.
Price has terrorized opposing shooters in these playoffs, leaving many feeling as though only a perfectly placed shot is capable of beating him. The result: a lot of pucks being fired just wide of the net, not a lot of pucks going in the net, and a lot of wins for Price and the Montreal Canadiens.
The difference in the quality of Price’s play from the regular season to the playoffs over the past two seasons is astounding. While players around the NHL maintained Price is one of the best goalies in the world, his regular-season numbers painted a much different picture. Among 40 goalies to have played a minimum of 50 games over the past two seasons, Price ranks middle of the pack in goals-against average and save percentage.
The playoffs are a different story.
There is no clear answer as to why Price has been so much better in the post-season, but there are plenty of theories. Price has routinely played over 50 games per season throughout his career. However, in each of the past two seasons, he’s had ample time to rest before the playoffs started. Last year, the pandemic delayed the start of the playoffs by four-plus months. This season, an injury kept Price out for a month ahead of his first playoff game. Perhaps the answer is rest.
Price has been a money goalie his entire career. The bigger the game, the better he seems to perform. Price has a .920 career playoff save percentage and posted a .971 save percentage for Canada at the 2014 Olympic Games. Perhaps, Price is capable of elevating his game on command.
Or, perhaps Price is in his opponents' heads.
There have been plenty of examples in all three rounds of elite scorers ripping shots past Price and off the boards or glass behind him. When a goalie is in the kind of groove Price is in, it would be understandable to think opposing shooters believe they need a perfect shot to beat him. As a result, fewer shots are hitting the net that have a chance of becoming a goal. Call it the Boogeyman effect. And while the Boogeyman may be a fictional character, this effect Price is having on shooters does appear to be real.
To see if opposing snipers are indeed misfiring on Price more than usual we will look at the percentage of scoring chances put on net from each team’s top three goal scorers from the regular season.
In the Canadiens' opening-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Auston Matthews managed just one goal in seven games. This, after scoring a league-leading 41 goals in the regular season. Matthews generated a whopping 37 scoring chances in the series, putting 19 on net. That equates to 51.4 per cent of his scoring chances hitting the net, down from 62.4 per cent in the regular season.
Toronto’s top three scorers from the regular season, Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander (John Tavares excluded due to injury) combined to put 56.7 per cent of their scoring chances on net, down slightly from 60.1 per cent in the regular season.
The drop of less than four percentage points should not be considered meaningful, but it is a drop nonetheless. In the Canadiens' next series against the Winnipeg Jets, the Boogeyman effect appeared to be very real.
The Jets' top-three goal scorers from the regular season (Mark Scheifele excluded due to suspension) hit the net on fewer than half of their scoring chances. The percentage point drop from the regular season was a whopping 15.8 per cent.
Blake Wheeler had a team-high 24 scoring chances in the second round and hit the net on just nine of them.
It's a similar story with the Vegas Golden Knights. Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone, and Jonathan Marchessault were the top-three Vegas goal scorers during the regular season and have combined for one goal through five games against Montreal. The trio hit the net on nearly 60 per cent of its scoring chances in the regular season -- collectively, it sits at 50 per cent in the third round.
While Pacioretty and Stone haven’t deviated much from their regular season percentages, Marchessault has seen a significant drop in his shooting accuracy on his scoring chances. Marchessault hit the net on 54.5 per cent of his scoring chances in the regular season -- that number is down to 35.7 per cent against Price.
Add it all up and the top-three regular-season goal scorers from each of the Canadiens' playoff opponents are hitting the net on just over half their scoring chances (50.2 per cent), down from 59.2 per cent in the regular season.
While empirical evidence exists that, yes, Price’s presence or aura may in fact be messing with his opponents' heads, this is hardly definitive proof. It would be impossible to say for sure. However, the most likely explanation for Price’s continued playoff dominance is a combination of the three factors mentioned.
The 33-year-old is well-rested. Price has made a career of shining brightest when the spotlight is on him. And yes, there’s a good chance he’s frustrated opposing shooters to the point where they are trying a little too hard to hit a tiny target in hopes of beating him.
Whatever the case, Price is unquestionably a major reason the Canadiens have a chance to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final Thursday night. On a provincial holiday in Quebec, no less. The Golden Knights will need to figure out how to put a few past Price in Game 6 or their Stanley Cup dreams will be over, replaced instead with nightmares of the Boogeyman.