Will Olympics Performance Quiet Montreal Canadiens Goalie Carey Price's Critics?

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Will Olympics Performance Quiet Montreal Canadiens Goalie Carey Price's Critics?
Mark Humphrey/Associated Press
Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price and Team Canada.

While his current stint on injured reserve isn’t exactly disproving the theory, Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price is nonetheless poised to put the myth of a post-Olympics hangover to bed. Even so, it’s not how he plays in the immediate aftermath of his gold-medal victory once he’s healthy that should matter most to his critics.

The narrative that an Olympics appearance leads to a sluggish final quarter to the NHL season is a popular one. It gives owners an additional argument against sending their players overseas and players an excuse should they falter upon their return. However, at least among goalies, there’s little evidence to support the theory.

For example, in 1997-98, Buffalo Sabre Dominik Hasek went 33-23-13 with a 2.09 goals-against average and .932 save percentage overall en route to capturing the Vezina Trophy. After his gold-medal win in Nagano, the Czech actually boosted his chances with an incredible .948 save percentage and 13-6-3 record the last leg of the season.

HANS DERYK/Associated Press
Former-Buffalo Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek.

Similarly, Canada’s Martin Brodeur went 14-5 with a .911 save percentage upon returning from Salt Lake City in 2002. Overall, he had a 38-26-9 record that season, with a slightly lower .906 save percentage.

Granted, more recent history tells a different story. Sweden’s Henrik Lundqvist, fresh off his gold-medal victory in Turin, went just 5-5-3 the rest of the way with a relatively pedestrian .907 save percentage, compared to the .922 with which he finished the 2005-06 season.

Most recently, in 2010, Roberto Luongo’s play went into a veritable tailspin after the Vancouver Games—and he didn’t even have to get on a plane to get home. He ended up letting in 50 goals in his last 16 games for a .893 save percentage. Needless to say, his play prior to being named to Team Canada that season had been just a tad better.

While there’s always a chance Price will perpetuate the myth in question, most signs point to him having an overall strong season.

He has, after all, been the main difference-maker for the Habs so far this season, and if the above examples of goaltenders are any indication, there’s little reason that’s going to change. I mean, it’s not like he’s Lundqvist or Luongo. Truth be told, in terms of overall talent, he’s somewhere in between.

Currently, he is in the top 10 in wins (26), top five in shutouts (four), sixth in save percentage (.925) and seventh in goals-against average (2.33) among goalies who have played 40 or more games. However, as his critics were all to quick to point out in the lead-up to the Olympics, it’s his play in clutch situations—not in the regular season—that has always been under the gun.

He has just one playoff series victory to his name, and that came in his rookie season when he and the Habs had a 3-1 series lead against the Boston Bruins, only to let them back in the series and force a seventh game. From that moment on until his most recent postseason, when he allowed 13 goals in four games against the Ottawa Senators, Price has developed a reputation as a choker.

ANDERS WIKLUND/Associated Press/Associated Press
Carey Price at the 2007 World Juniors.

Now, admittedly, all that was before Price won his Olympic gold medal in Russia, getting named the tournament’s best goaltender in the process. However, it was also after he won gold at the World Junior Hockey Championships in 2007 in Sweden, then taking home both the tournament’s best goaltender and most valuable player honors.

There’s one of two conclusions to be drawn as a result:

  1. All the criticism Price has had to endure since beginning his NHL career is unjustified.
  2. To have the same success with the Canadiens as he’s had internationally, the Habs are going to have to move overseas, which really wouldn’t work on so many different levels. The London Canadiens, anyone?

Price has indeed proved to be a world-class goalie—that’s kind of the definition of a goalie selected for international tournaments. He’s also proved to be clutch, so to a certain degree, yes, the critics are wrong. However, all he’s truly accomplished is wins with all-star teams in front of him. Needless to say, that’s not the Habs.

No one’s necessarily even asking him to win a Stanley Cup. That’s not what silences critics (just ask Pittsburgh Penguin Marc-Andre Fleury). He just needs to get the monkey off his back, win at least one more series and then build off that next season…and then the season after that.

Really, some of the world’s best goalies have yet to win a championship. That’s a group that includes Lundqvist, arguably the best right now. Lundqvist, a goalie who has never won it all, getting mad props for his level of play (and Fleury constantly getting slammed) points to one overriding truth: To prove he is one of the best, all Price needs to do is be consistent. That means being great year to year instead of following the pattern of posting one excellent season and then two mediocre ones.

Right now, just like back in 2010-11 when he went 38-28-6 with a .923 save percentage, Price is undeniably at the top of his game. However, two seasons ago, he played just OK behind a last-place team, earning a 26-28-11 record in the process. Last season, he posted the lowest save percentage of his career, .905. His play followed a similar pattern after a successful rookie season, with 2008-09 and 2009-10 largely being write-offs.

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Now, no matter what, even if Price is able to play consistently from here on out and get the majority of hockey fans on his side, there’s always going to be a select few contrarians trying to play devil’s advocate. That’s unavoidable.

No one’s ever going to silence everybody. The best you can do is put yourself in a position to make your detractors sound foolish. No, he won’t shut them up, but he can shut them out of his head just like he shut out both the United States and Sweden in Sochi. The only thing that’s changed between last spring’s debacle and now is the entire world knows he’s capable of it. That’s half the battle right there.

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