Monday, November 22, 2010

20 Games in – Litmus test awaits Carey Price

Photo credit: Richard Wolowicz / Getty Images
Everyone knows Montreal Canadiens fans and the media who feed them are fickle beasts. Always ready to pounce on anything negative in a game of sensationalist one-upmanship that Quebecers do so well. Controversy, real or tabloid is the life energy that keeps this city fed and warm during long winter nights and just one thing messes with that… winning.

Carey Price came into this season primed for failure. Many expected it, everyone feared it. Participating in rodeo events, even team-approved events and waiting two and a half months after the Jaroslav Halak trade to sign a 2 year extension with the Habs, created a vacuum of time that was filled with rumour and speculation. And there it festered.

The result was Carey Price being booed in his first exhibition game. Everyone was primed and ready to let Price know how exactly how they felt about Halak being traded and Carey supplied the fuel by allowing 3 goals on the first 5 Bruin shots, including a particularly soft goal by Nathan Horton. When Price was replaced by Auld, he had surrendered 4 goals on just 10 shots and everyone envisioned a mushroom cloud over the city of Montreal the following day as fans and media alike would and did vent.

Price’s next start against Ottawa was no better, coughing up 6 goals on 30 shots but he rebounded to finish the pre-season with 6-2 and 7-2 wins over Florida & New York as the Habs took advantage of the Panther’s goalie of the future, Jacob Markstom and an Islanders split-squad. Confidence builders? Perhaps.

Twenty games into the season, the Habs netminder has silenced his critics with a 2.00 GAA and a save percentage of .932 while posting a 12-6-1 record. Last year over the same period, Price had a 3.08 GAA and a .904 save percentage resulting in a brutal 4-9-0 record, thanks in part to the Canadiens scoring a meager 2.00 goals a game for him on average. Subtract the Vancouver game which began the unraveling of Price’s season and he would have posted a respectable .915 save percentage instead. Problem is, the Vancouver game did happen and Carey Price never recovered from it.

This season, the Habs are still struggling to provide Price with offensive support. Excluding the Carolina game which saw the Canadiens explode for 7 goals, 3 against backup Justin Peters, they’ve averaged just 2.29 goals a game so far versus the 2.28 average the Habs gave him last season. All in however, the Habs are currently averaging 2.53 goals a game which will be severely tested going forward as the number of games played increases this season, more so without Markov.

Success in the NHL, like all professional sports is a game of adjustments and mental toughness. The ditch is full of talented players who couldn’t adjust to adversity at the pro level. Carey Price got off to a solid start last season with wins against Toronto & Buffalo before he met his Waterloo in Vancouver. Excluding the pre-season, Price has yet to play a bad game and it wasn’t until his 18th start of the season against Nashville that he let in a soft goal reminiscent of last year. An excellent start to the marathon that is the NHL regular season but the litmus test has yet to be given.

How will Carey Price react to adversity this year, this time? One glance at the emotional outbursts of Toronto’s Jonas Gustavsson on Saturday offered stark contrast to the body language Price has shown so far this season. Add in his deflection of praise onto teammates at every opportunity and its promising indeed but let’s stop the talk of redemption, at least with 62 games still to play and hopefully more after that.

Concerns still linger in the minds of many over how Price will respond to the losing streak that all teams endure over the course of a season. And they happen. The difference is that good teams are capable of minimizing them before they take on a life of their own. Has Carey Price matured enough to adjust this time? Is he more mentally prepared to maintain an even keel and does he now possess the professional work ethic needed for long-term NHL success?

Many who still feel the Montreal Canadiens made a mistake trading Jaroslav Halak are waiting for it, many members of the media who live for controversy are surely waiting for it… fans who parrot what they see and hear in the media are waiting for it. I’m waiting for it.

So far, so good for Carey Price but until he demonstrates it, fingers crossed.