Monday, April 28, 2008

The goalie giveth and the goalie taketh away

Channelling Paul Simon this morning: Where have you gone Cristobal Huet? Habs Nation turns its lonely eyes to you...

Okay, okay...too late to go there now. And I'm the first one to say that Carey Price will be a very good goalie in the NHL, and that Jaroslav Halak is a very, very talented young goalie in his own right. The problem is, the last two games have proven the old axiom that you don't win in the playoffs without playoff goaltending. Price isn't turning out to be a playoff goalie at the NHL level just yet. The jury's still out on Halak, as his stopping the two shots he faced last night doesn't tell us much.

The Habs can't really play any better than they did last night, with the exception of working better with the man advantage. Blowing a two-minute five-on-three opportunity and allowing a shorthanded goal aren't good things. But, the Flyers' PP was equally quiet and the Canadiens owned almost every aspect of the game, from hits (26-19) to shots (34-14). Sure, they could have improved on their team 42% faceoff win percentage, but they still outskated the Flyers and limited chances. When they faced the third down 3-0, they didn't throw in the towel. They played their best period, outshooting Philly 17-2 and scoring their two goals on the previously insipid powerplay.

The problem is, in the playoffs, when team offense is snakebitten, and when they can't organize on those 5-on-3s, the goalie is the one who has to hold the fort to keep the team in it. That's what a playoff goalie does. It may be unfair that on a team of twenty guys, one should bear the responsibility for a loss like last night's. Of course, Koivu's missed breakaway, Higgins' missed open net, the three goalposts they hit in the first period all would have made a difference if they had connected. But, when it comes right down to it, three goals allowed on 12 shots just isn't good enough. You can talk about tips and deflections and screens, but playoff goalies find a way to stop those, or at least enough of them to give his team a chance to win. A playoff goalie doesn't allow the backbreaker.

A playoff goalie is also consistent. He doesn't go shutout, five-goal game, five-goal game, shutout. The team needs to know the goalie is there. If the players don't have confidence their goalie will bail them out most of the time, they begin to play differently. They take fewer offensive chances for fear of getting caught and leaving the goalie on his own. They overcompensate on defence because they don't trust the goalie to handle things. It impacts the goalie himself too. He starts to worry the slightest mistake will be the one to turn the game against his team. He begins to overhandle the puck and make bad decisions. He drifts back into his net too much and butterflies too early.

Now the Canadiens have a dilemma of serious proportions. They decided to go with Price as the playoff goaltender. Unfortunately, Price is looking like he did immediately before being demoted to Hamilton earlier this season. He's making mistakes with the puck, he's bobbling easy shots and he's wandering out of his net and getting caught. And those are just the errors that don't end up behind him. So today the question on everyone's lips will be: who starts game four?

The answer will be Carey Price. Guy Carbonneau would have to have balls like grapefruits to start Halak, even if he thinks the backup is in a better frame of mind to win a game for the team. Bob Gainey has declared Price the starter and number one goalie, and in Gainey's plan, this is a year for the kids to get some playoff experience. Price will be given every opportunity to get his mojo back, and management will do all it can to avoid shattering his already fragile confidence. When it comes to a decision about which would be worse for him: losing the series and knowing he's the cause, or sitting out while Halak plays and knowing he failed, I'm inclined to think the team will choose on the side of letting him dig his way out of the hole he's dug for himself. He's always been able to pick up his game when it mattered in the past, and there's every reason to hope he can find it within himself to do so again.

Of course, it would help if the rest of the team would start burying those chances which are so plentiful on the ice and so elusive on the scoreboard. Scoring first and getting a lead would be nice. But in the playoffs, your goalie has to be the best player...fair or not...if you're going to win. Biron has been that for the Flyers, by a mile. Even so, if the Habs had only decent goaltending, the issue wouldn't be an issue. Now they're facing a game they must win, and the team is getting frustrated at having been the better side in the last two contests while still losing. They need a heroic goaltending performance to get the series back on track. Without it, Price and the rest of the team will have a few long months to contemplate how the wonderful season they held in their hands ended up dribbling out of a weak glove.

1 comment:

Silver in 16 said...

Call me crazy, but I felt pretty good last night watching Les Boys storm the Flyers -- especially in the third. So, I have confidence in them that they'll keep coming. We're facing a playoff goaltender in Biron, and that's what you get on the way to the Cup. Now, we have to solve him, and I think we will.

Price will be a major question mark, and only he can answer it.

The pivotal 4th game -- tied, or down 3-1 -- will provide part of that answer.

But, me, I'm also thinking we're ahead of schedule. I didn't think we'd be going through these emotions/gyrations THIS year. NO! I'm not throwing in the towel and saying 'Wait 'til next year...' I'm just saying that this isn't going to be a cakewalk and I'm ready for either eventuality. Life is good.