When Ken Hitchcock stood behind the visitors’ bench against the Montreal Canadiens in October, he watched his St. Louis Blues fire 17 pucks at Carey Price in the first period. He stood and pondered how his team could be outchancing the Canadiens so badly and still be losing. As the game went on, he watched his players shake their heads and look to the heavens. He saw their energy ebb and resignation take over their body language, becoming more discouraged as each of their 38 shots found their way into that sea of red in the Montreal net.
It was right around then Hitchcock made his own determination about Price and his impact on the game. “As a sportsman it’s nice to see,” he said, “but as a competitor, it’s the s–ts.”
His injury this season notwithstanding, what we’re witnessing with Price is the emergence of an athlete who’s beginning to transcend his sport. There is no debate Price is the best goaltender in the NHL, and by extension, the world. As far as his impact on the game, however, he’s starting to find his way into that rarified status occupied by the likes of Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Michael Jordan and Dominik Hasek. He is so dominant at his position that he is becoming the focal point of his opponents’ efforts, often to their detriment. “There’s no doubt he’s renting out space inside players’ heads,” said longtime sports psychologist Paul Dennis.
Price can do what Hasek did in his prime. On Feb. 20, 1998, in Nagano, Japan, Canada was playing the Czech Republic, and Hasek was at the height of his powers. He was not only in the Canadian players’ kitchens. He was helping himself to everything in their fridges. Canada was passing up shots, playing tentatively and looking for the perfect scoring chance. The Canadians finished regulation with 22 shots on goal, and by the time they got to the shootout, they might as well have been trying to score with manhole covers.
Two months later, Sean Burke had been dealt to the Philadelphia Flyers at the trade deadline. As the season wound down, he kept noticing in the dressing room how his teammates continued to put pressure on themselves to finish second in the Eastern Conference to avoid finishing third and a meeting with the sixth-place Buffalo Sabres and Hasek. The Flyers lost three of their last four games, met the Sabres in the first round and, despite having home-ice advantage, were crushed 4-1 by Buffalo in the series. “We were mentally beaten already,” Burke said. “We didn’t want to face him, and it became a total mental thing for us.”
And that’s perhaps where Price has his biggest advantage over opponents. It’s not so much in terms of the actual game action where players are shooting when they should be passing, passing when they should be shooting or zigging when they should be zagging. It’s in the total team approach to facing him. Price is at a stage where teams are becoming so focused on trying to beat him they forget the Canadiens are a pretty good team even without him in the net. “I know that after we played them, we were kicking ourselves for spending all our time talking about the opposing goalie,” Hitchcock said.
Dennis said it can be a huge advantage for the Canadiens. Players who rise to the ranks of the NHL do so for many reasons. One of them is a sublime level of skill, another is mental toughness and determination. But one of the big ones is their ability to eliminate distractions and focus on the task at hand. When Price enters the equation, he becomes exactly that – an unwanted and unneeded distraction. In addition to having to make plays and put themselves in a position to score goals, opponents have to think about how they’re going to get the puck past Price once they accomplish all those things.
Dennis’ advice to teams and players in the NHL is to basically ignore the reigning MVP.
“I’m not an NHL coach, but if I were and I were preparing my team, I don’t think I’d focus a lot on a Carey Price, because it brings more tension to an already tense situation,” Dennis said. “I’d focus on what we do really well and ‘this is how we’re going to exploit the Canadiens and get scoring opportunities.’ And I would stop there. I wouldn’t reinforce how good he is in my players’ minds. They already know that. I’m not going to state the obvious.”
By virtue of the position he plays, Price is always going to have a significant impact on the outcome of the game, either positively (usually) or negatively (rarely). It’s no different, really, than facing a superstar such as Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux in his prime. Those who were around Price with the Canadian Olympic team in Sochi marvelled at how easy he makes a very difficult game look. Even though you could count on one hand the number of goals Canada gave up in that tournament, it’s not always easy to keep your focus, particularly when the stakes are so high. Hitchcock said he knew Price was special after Canada’s 2-1 win over Latvia when Canada was hitting posts, missing open nets and continually being thwarted by a virtual unknown at the other end named Kristers Gudlevskis. But in that game, Price had to make at least a half dozen highlight-reel saves himself. Had he allowed a soft goal or not been at the top of his game, what Price does to shooters might have happened to his own team facing Gudlevskis. That he did it so calmly was what impressed those around him.
Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland was one of those people who had a front-row seat for Price’s exploits in Sochi. He opines that there are so many good players in the NHL it’s difficult to distinguish yourself as a difference maker. But Price has done that by determining the outcome of games. Holland isn’t sure whether Price is in his Wing players’ heads, but he is certain of one thing.
“I know he’s in my head,” Holland said. “He puts pressure on the other goalie. He puts pressure on the other team. At the same time, he gives confidence to his team because he’s the last line of defense. And he’s the best last line of defense in the league.”
THN’s Top 40
The Hockey News submitted a list of 40 NHL goaltenders – 30 starters plus our picks for the 10 best backups – to 10 retired NHL goaltenders. We asked them to rate each goalie in five different categories: goalie sense (positioning, angles, general hockey IQ); athleticism; puckhandling; winnability (trustworthiness in a do-or-die game); and durability (health and ability to handle large workload). Ex-NHL goaltender and goalie coach Corey Hirsch came up with the five categories. Here are the overall results:
Here are the Top 5-rated goalies from each of the five categories.