Michel Therrien isn't going to apologize for the fact that Carey Price is his best player, but Montreal Canadiens fans everywhere continue to be perplexed at the extent to which Price has had to prove that.
Night after night, the Canadiens are putting a lot of pressure on Price to deliver his very best, and rare has there been an occasion when they haven't had to rely on him in that capacity. A game against Vancouver on December 9th comes to mind, when the Canadiens allowed just 16 shots to get to Price. Another against Columbus, just 14 days ago, saw the Canadiens truly dominate the possession game.
In 34 of their 46 games this season, the Canadiens have allowed 28 shots or more. In 26 games, it's been 30 or more. In 14 games (6 wins and an overtime loss for Price), it's been 35 or more. On average, the team allows 30.7 shots against per game, good for 23rd in the NHL.
The Canadiens have out-shot their opponents in 19 games this season, winning 13 of them, picking up an extra point in one other. They've won both contests in which they've tied their opponents in shots, and they've managed 15 wins and two extra points in the 25 games they've been out-shot in.
In Michel Therrien's first year back behind the Canadiens bench (the lockout abridged season of 2012-13), the Canadiens ranked fourth in shots against per game. Consider that in 39 starts, Price faced 1018 shots, and in 37 games this season, he's already faced 1120.
"We're well aware that we have a really great goalie, and we're very happy to have him with us," said Therrien after Price turned in a 40-save performance for the win last night. Damn right!
It's conceded that last night, the Canadiens lacked their regular rhythm after several days away from the rink, and against a very aggressive Stars team, that put them in the line of fire. But, it's also generally conceded that this Canadiens team has better personnel than the last two editions, and to be categorically outplayed as often as they have lends credence to all the second guessing the fans have done in relation to the system the team plays and the combinations the head coach has come up with.
There are currently nine teams with a better shooting percentage than the Canadiens, but no team has a higher PDO (combination of shooting percentage and save percentage). Price's .929 save percentage shines even brighter under that lens. A marginal drop, which one would expect with the amount of shots and chances he's currently facing, wouldn't see the Canadiens plummet in the standings, but a drop off in their shooting percentage could prove disastrous.
Lucky for them, the power play--the bane of Montreal's existence for most of the season--has really come to life over the last five games, converting 38% of their opportunities (8/21) after running at 13.6% (16/117). If they could maintain a success rate in the middle ground, that would go a long way towards covering up their deficiency in the possession stats.
The penalty kill has been a strength all season. At nearly 85% efficiency, Price rightfully shares the credit with his teammates:
"We're working as a unit. We have guys that are willing to block shots, and that's probably the biggest part about it. We're really good at getting in lanes and we're willing to pay the price."
The question is, will the price inevitably become too much to bare?
At the beginning of January, I wrote a piece about the necessity to balance the possession disadvantage with the Canadiens' ability to defend well in their own zone
, and the importance of considering the quality of the chances they allow. At the time, the Canadiens were hovering between 49-50% in Corsi and Fenwick. Since, they've gone 4-2-1, badly out-possessed in all but two of those games (wins against the Islanders and Blue Jackets).
No need to remind you that there are 36 games remaining before the level of hockey kicks up several notches in the post-season. If the Habs can adjust, the just might prove that they have what it takes to contend for a Stanley Cup, but it's hard to imagine tremendous goaltending combined with above average shooting percentage and a solid powerplay will be enough to push them over the edge.
Marc Bergevin has to be wondering what he can do to influence a positive change in the way his team plays the game. He's not meddled in his coach's decisions and strategies, but he must be biting his tongue right now. It's hard to imagine a couple of personnel changes dramatically altering the team's possession deficiency, granted, they might relegate certain players back into the roles you expect to see them in (see Weise, Dale).
Is Michel Therrien willing to tweak his systems? That's the ultimate question. Someone tried to put it to him last night, but not in those terms, and he wasn't willing to answer.
But, rest assured, Therrien's thrilled to have Carey Price in Montreal. He mentioned it more than once last night.