There are a lot of panicked Habs fans this week, looking sideways at each other and whispering "pssst...wanna buy a goalie?" Carey Price's nickname should be The Pendulum. When he's winning games, critics talk about playoffs and Vezinas. When he's not...especially when he's losing spectacularly as he has in his last two (and five previous this season) starts...he's suddenly a dud who might bring a nice return if Oilers' new GM Craig MacTavish can be duped out of trading a young stud for him.
The truth, as it usually does, falls somewhere in the middle. Carey Price is a very good goaltender. He's technically sound, by all accounts he's a hard worker and he usually will make enough big saves to give his team the chance to win. On the other hand, Price tends to have enough stinkers to skew his numbers and keep him out of serious recognition as a top-tier goalie in the NHL. This year, for example, Price has had eight games out of his 34 starts in which he's allowed five or more goals. All ended in losses, excepting the bizarre comeback against Boston after Peter Budaj replaced him. To make a comparison with a truly elite goalie, the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist was Price's age in 2008. He gave up six goals twice and five goals three times over 72 games. He was a Vezina finalist that year, his third in the NHL. Price is in his sixth season and has never quite found that consistency from game to game or season to season.
Of course, comparisons of that kind don't serve a great purpose and they're too easy. They don't make allowances for the different cities, coaches or teammates, or different levels of maturity, physical health, innate talent, practice habits or mental strength that make each player his own man. Carey Price isn't Henrik Lundqvist. He's Carey Price, for better or for worse, and that's why there is a goalie controversy in Montreal.
The controversy isn't about whether Price or Budaj should start the next game or the first playoff game. It's not about whether Price or Jaroslav Halak should have been traded in the summer of 2010. Everyone, even those who passionately argue revisionist history, can accept the idea that Price has been much more durable, and therefore, more reliable, than Halak since the trade. The controversy isn't even about the idea that the Canadiens erred in choosing Price fifth overall back in the 2005 draft anymore. These days, Montreal's goalie controversy is between good Carey Price and struggling Carey Price.
When Carey Price is good, he exudes an aura of calm competence. He's quick, in position to face the puck, and to challenge shooters. He handles the puck well. He is, in many ways, a third defenceman and the anchor of his team's defence.
Struggling Carey Price is deep in his net, loses his focus on the puck, lets weak floaters and squeakers through at the worst possible times and is visibly frustrated with himself. The thing is, every goaltender has a meltdown version of himself. So does just about every other player at every other position who slumps on the scoresheet or in the plus/minus department. They just don't look as bad.
The problem, as former Habs coach Jacques Demers so suscinctly put it, is that it all starts with goaltending. Teams take their mood from the goalie. If he's looking sharp and confident, the team will respond and let him do his job. If he's juggling the puck and looking behind him, his body language tells the team he's not ready. Then the defencemen start scrambling, trying to cover up in their own zone and help the goalie out. The result is chaos.
What Demers didn't say when talking about what it takes to win is that while it might all start with the goalie, the goalie is just a member of the team like everyone else. If Josh Gorges blows coverage or Andrei Markov pinches deep and can't get back, their mistakes cause goals against. When enough of those mistakes turn into goals, the score runs up, the goalie gets pulled and the pendulum of public opinion in the goalie controversy swings.
There's no question Carey Price is the struggling version of himself right now. The timing isn't great with only a handful of games left before playoffs. When Peter Budaj gets the start against a powerhouse like the Penguins, it creates unwanted doubt at a time when things should be coming together for the real season. Michel Therrien may be trying to shock Price out of his slump, because it's not encouraging to watch the guy you're counting on to bring you to any sort of post-season success playing like Hardy Astrom.
That said, Gorges isn't having a great time lately either. Two regulars on defence are missing, replaced with a green rookie and a guy who couldn't make the team in his last NHL home. Brandon Prust is playing hurt, David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty score as often as an 80-year-old nun and Travis Moen has been MIA all year. The team's motto is "no excuses," but those facts do actually have an impact on how the team performs. Carey Price is the one who takes the lion's share of the blame, but he's not alone.
Price needs to be better, but the team around him needs to pick it up as well. Blaming the goalie for everything is both myopic and unfair. Price may or may not come out on top in the "is he or isn't he the real deal" goalie controversy. The only way he can answer the question is to stand up in the playoffs and prove himself. Critics need to be silent and allow him to do that.
In the end, Price may meet the challenge and end the goalie controversy this spring. If he doesn't, there may be a real reason to suspect he's actually little more than an above-average goalie with slump problems. Right now, he's 25, he's got six years and five playoffs in the NHL, and the test he's facing will label him, one way or the other, in eyes other than those constantly focusing on the Habs. A lot of fans aren't ready to trust him yet. It remains to be seen if his teammates do. Whatever happens, the pendulum will be weighted heavily to one side or the other by June.