Canadiens' Carey Price needs proper reset as struggles mount

The Jets put up five goals on Carey Price, two of them from Kyle Connor, in a 6-3 win over the Canadiens.

On hands and knees, with the puck having slipped through his legs on Nate Thompson’s wobbling wrister for yet another soul-crushing goal allowed, Carey Price might have considered saying a prayer.

He’s a man of faith in need of a blessing, perhaps something otherworldly to help fix what currently ails him.

Or maybe just some personal practice time would suffice; a reset, not unlike the ones he’s taken at previous points in his career when things haven’t gone to plan.

Because playing through his struggles was the first option exercised and it proved to be the wrong one for Price.

For what it’s worth, I thought Dominique Ducharme -- in his first game behind Montreal’s bench after replacing Claude Julien -- made the right call giving Price a chance to redeem himself after allowing three stoppable goals in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday, even in spite of Price’s season-long struggles and backup Jake Allen playing out of his mind again in Sunday’s overtime loss to the Senators. The coach wanted to give his top leader a chance to lead, to show him some much-needed faith with this all-important first big decision, and that had the potential for a huge payoff.

“It’s a new start,” Ducharme said on Thursday, before things looked same old.

The Winnipeg Jets erased 2-0 and 3-1 leads before Thompson slipped that poison pill through Price to make it 4-3 in the third period, effectively knocking the goaltender and the Canadiens out, with goals from Pierre-Luc Dubois and Mark Scheifele putting them on ice for the 6-3 win at Bell MTS Place.

“Just gotta be better,” Price said after allowing five goals for a fifth time in 12 starts this season.

I’ll come back to that, because Price is not alone. Enough of his teammates played like shattered versions of themselves, just like they have of late, and there’s plenty of blame to go around for this loss.

“We cracked,” Ducharme said. “We cracked mentally. We cracked physically.”

This game didn’t start that way.

The Canadiens came out strong. They jumped out of the blocks with speed, in control of nearly every aspect of play, determined to reverse the tidal wave that had sunk them to a 2-4-2 record in their last eight games. They got two goals off Joel Armia’s stick thanks to two plays that exhibited the type of creativity that had been sorely lacking in their game through February.

But then Shea Weber took a delay-of-game penalty 4:55 into the second period -- the first of four penalties the Canadiens took in the game -- and the 22nd-ranked penalty kill stepped on the ice and got caught trying to compensate for the disturbing trend that had undone their strong start to the season in this department. Instead of “chasing our tails too much,” as general manager Marc Bergevin put it after firing Julien Wednesday, the penalty kill froze, leading to a sequence where every player in bleu, blanc et rouge looked bad and Jets forward Kyle Connor benefited with his ninth goal of the season.

“(Jets captain Blake) Wheeler tapped one off Pricey’s back, I tried to check as many sticks as I could, (Jeff Petry) tried to ice it and it was right on (Connor’s) tape and in the net,” said Phillip Danault.

He didn’t mention the part where he lost the faceoff clean -- the first of seven he failed to pull back out of the nine he took on the penalty kill on this night.

Danault, like Price, has been struggling. He came into the game with zero goals on the year and with his confidence in flux, Ducharme reunited him with Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher -- the line that had been Montreal’s most effective for two seasons prior to this one -- and tapped him for every key draw in the game. It was a you-got-this gesture the 28-year-old centre failed to repay.

That Danault finished his night on the fourth line, between Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen, was indicative of how he played and is likely foreshadowing for where he’ll be on Saturday when these teams face each other again.

I digress.

What happened after the penalty kill froze on Connor’s goal was one of the most mystifying sequences of the last month. The Canadiens got a power play, failed in every aspect of it, and then miraculously scored when Jesperi Kotkaniemi accidentally hit a Jets defender with a failed dump-in attempt and ended up with a two-on-one that Tatar finished.

I doubt it was because Josh Anderson wasn’t available after leaving the game late in the first period because he was tripped by Dylan DeMelo, but without him, that first power play was a comedy sketch. The two others the Canadiens had afterwards were like that scene in Misery where Kathy Bates breaks James Caan’s ankles -- just painful to watch.

Jonathan Drouin was tremendous at five-on-five, setting up Armia’s second goal and a couple of others Anderson failed to finish before he left the game, but he said afterwards he was as much a part of the persisting problem there as anyone.

“We’re terrible right now,” Drouin said. “Whatever unit goes on, we’re not creating anything. I’m a power-play guy, I gotta be better, I gotta make plays, I gotta make better zone entries. When the puck’s on my stick or (Nick Suzuki’s), we’ve gotta make better entries. That’s where it is. It’s on us. It’s not on the (coaching) staff, it’s not on the system, it’s on players making the right plays and making sure we retrieve those pucks.

“We don’t win many battles when there’s a loose puck, and that’s a big issue for us. You’ve gotta stick your nose in and get dirty and make the right plays at the right time.”

The discipline issue -- the Canadiens came into the game as the second-most penalized team in the NHL -- and the special teams weren’t going to be fixed overnight. Neither were the poor regroups, the over-backchecks, disconnected forechecks and other bad habits that have crept into the Canadiens’ game.

“The word habits speaks for itself,” said Ducharme. “You have to create them, and creating them takes time. And undoing them takes time. We’re going to do it… There are some things that take time, but we’re going to have to accelerate (the process). That’s our reality.”

Thirty-seven games remain, the schedule is unrelenting and the Canadiens don’t have much time to practice while playing every second day and oftentimes back-to-back. But they’ll have to move quickly on these issues.

The opposite approach is likely needed with Price.

“I just think maybe I’m overthinking things,” Price said.

Taking some time to work on technical adjustments with goaltending coach Stephane Waite might ease his mind. Time Allen can buy, and time away from games while the Canadiens iron out the kinks in front of him, could offer hope beyond prayers.

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