At the beginning of the season, more prognosticators than just myself suggested that the Canadiens would only better their 2012 result if Carey Price were able to turn in a better and more dominant performance.
And from the start it seemed like this may be the case. Carey was more prepared than we'd ever seen him for a season and started the year off with the cool confidence that told his teammates: "you go for goals, I'll take care of the rest."
But when the season came to a rest on Saturday, Carey ended with below average numbers in several bell-weather categories. One could certainly argue that he did a good job for the team he was on. But one might have a hard time saying that he did a better job for his team than all those guys ahead of him that we didn't scrutinize night after night.
Anyway, we do not want to descend into an analysis of what a 0.905 save percentage means in a short season. The question we have in the playoffs is: does Carey need to be better in order for the team to win (keep winning).
By save percentage
In games where Carey provided goaltending of a calibre of 0.960 or greater (11 games this season), the Canadiens posted a 10-1-0 record. They scored 30 goals (2.73 a game, below their average) and only allowed 8 (3 shutouts in there). When he was outstanding, the team was virtually unbeatable. Their loss came in a game in which they could not score.
In games where Carey provided saves of 92-96% of shots (7 games), the Habs were an impressive 5-1-1. The team scored 22 goals (3.14 per game, over average) and allowed only 13 (1.86 per game). Again, it seems that when things were tight at the back, the Habs could count on wins.
You'll note by now that the Canadiens with Carey ticking at above 0.920 were 15-2-1, garnering 33 of their 63 points in only 18 of their 48 contests.
So what happens when Carey is less than a 0.920 goalie? In 21 remaining contests, the Habs would garner a mere 17 points, 15 which could be attributed statistically to Price (at 6-11-3 with a non-decision).
At first blush, this seems cut and dry. But there is a great distinction to be made:
A goalie can be less than heroic without being completely porous and the root cause of defeat. I think it is helpful to draw a sensible line in the sand here. No team would win if their goalies turned in performances where 25% of shots go in. For the sake of argument, I will choose 0.840 as the line in the sand. it's arbitrary, yes, but for illustration it is a helpful mark.
Games below that point end like this: 0 wins, 5 losses, 1 OTL, 36 goals against (6.00 per game) and 14 for. These were bad games for team and goaltender alike. If these happen this week, it will be trouble. it would be for any team.
But what of the games in between 0.840 and 0.920.
If one looks at this sample in Carey's gamelog, what one finds is 15 games and 14 decisions. He comes out as a playoff battling 6-6-2, the team's was 7-6-2. His GAA isn't the prettiest at 3.09, but the team provides 3.26 goals a game in support. His save percentage works out to 0.877 on average, but never mind.
If one looks closely, it is also hard to correlate the win with the save percentage in this limited sample. What happens in these back and forth games can sometimes defy logic.
The point to take from this, in my opinion is that the Canadiens did not rely on Carey Price to be elite during these 15 games. The team adjusted to the goaltending they received and opened up their play to suit the demands.
My suggestion then is that the Montreal Canadiens are not as one-dimensional as so many pundits seem to think. Of course a hot goaltender is a great boon to any team. I think the goalie that ends a series with a 0.960 save percentage will likely be waiting for 3 game days before his next series starts. But great goaltending is not a requisite in the case of the Habs for wins. As long as those 3 goals on 4 shot nights are banished forever, 9 saves out of 10 gives a team a good chance.
Look to the team
The thrust of the Canadiens success this season so far has not been heroism from Price, but rather a reliable flow of goals. The team was high in the league tables for goals for.
If one examines Prices record for goal support, the story is just as interesting as anything above:
When the Habs scored only a goal or less for him, Carey was 1-7-1 with a 2.79 GAA and a 0.889 SV%
When the Habs mustered 2 or more goals, Price saw his numbers rocket to 20-6-3 with 2.56 GAA and 0.908 Sv%.
Not surprising, but look at games with only 2 or 3 goals for: 7-5-2 with a 2.48 GAA and 0.912.
What about the first goal? It is repeated all the time, but it is worth repeating. The team that scores first in a league where there are about 5 goals in a game stands a better chance at being the team with the higher share of goals at the end.
When the Habs scored first with price in goal their record was 17-4-1. Carey enjoyed his task better too, with what would be career numbers: 2.10 and 0.924.
The flip side is a 5-9-3 record with a 3.28 GAA and 0.902 goalie.
I would say that when this discussion is floated, the vast majority of the time, the responsibility for scoring first is to be assumed by the team and not the goalie. But there is a forgotten factor: time. If the goalie of the team trying to score first allows a goal very quickly, then by definition, his team cannot score first.
If Carey Price is called to do one thing heroically, I'd suggest, it could be to allow his team the time to score first.
When he blanked the opposition in the first period, the team was 15-6-2. When he allowed a goal in the first, the team was 7-7-2.
If he were only to concentrate on the first 10 minutes, the records would be 19-7-3 and 3-6-1.
Not Price alone
Carey Price is certainly an important factor in this series. If he can meet Craig Anderson head on, I have already suggested that the Canadiens would gain the great upper hand in the series. But I also believe that because of the balance of other strengths and weaknesses that Carey can afford to take some weight off his shoulders and return to the steady and relaxed approach that his teammates thrive on.
I think he, the team and the fans should take some lessons from the season just finished where wins came in many different shapes and sizes thanks to a new versatility in the bleu, blanc, rouge. Just as the pundits from the summer have been confounded by the 0.905 goalie with a 21-13-4 record, so could the pundits who tout Price as the main key now.