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Carey Price has been Canadiens’ biggest concern amid early success

The Canadiens are holding down a divisional playoff spot and sit three games above .500 five weeks into the season, but Carey Price’s poor play is standing between Montreal and serious division crown contention.

The Montreal Canadiens have been full of surprises through the first five weeks of the season.

Take Max Domi, for instance. Acquired in a one-for-one deal with the Arizona Coyotes that saw Alex Galchenyuk sent off to the desert, Domi’s recent performances were offensive downturns from his rookie campaign, back-to-back nine-goal seasons complete with 38 and 45 points. His arrival in Montreal, however, has seemingly given him an offensive spark. In just 16 games, he’s already matched the nine-goal output and his 19 points put him on pace to shatter his previous 52-point career high.

The list goes beyond Domi, however. Tomas Tatar, part of the return for Pacioretty, has contributed six goals and 14 points in 16 games. Before falling injured, Joel Armia was fitting in perfectly in his increased capacity as a top-six forward with three goals and seven points in 15 games. Rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi has managed two goals and seven points of his own, too, and even two seemingly minor off-season additions, Matthew Peca and Mike Reilly, have more than carried their weight in their respective roles.

The sum of the surprising performances in Montreal has been a stunning amount of success for a team that, according to pre-season punditry, was pegged to finish within a stone’s throw of top lottery odds. Instead, the Canadiens are three games above .500 with mid-range numbers on offense and defense and Montreal appears to have a legitimate chance at hanging around in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

But maybe most surprising of all is that the Canadiens’ record should be better than it is. And the reason it isn’t is because of the poor play of Carey Price.

While Thursday’s 6-5 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres, a game in which Price allowed six goals against on 31 shots, isn’t the perfect example of Price’s shortcomings through the early part of the campaign, his recent performances are concerning, to say the least. His .806 save percentage in Thursday’s game marked the eighth time in 12 outings this season that Price failed to stop at least 90 percent of the pucks that have come his way and the fifth straight game he’s posted a sub-.900 SP. And while Canadiens coach Claude Julien was right in absolving Price for Montreal’s defensive performance on Thursday — particularly a pair of 2-on-1 goals — it’s not unreasonable to say goaltending has been the Canadiens’ Achilles heel for the duration of the season.

Overall, Price’s numbers this season are unsightly. At all strengths, Price has an .892 SP, the seventh-worst mark among the 36 netminders to see action in at least eight games this season, and his 5-on-5 SP has slipped to .904 following Thursday’s loss. Again, the seventh-worst total of the 36 netminders with at least eight games played. And while Julien helped give Price some leeway following the loss to the Sabres by saying Montreal hasn’t been excellent defensively, a few numbers would suggest otherwise.

At 5-on-5 this season, among the same group of 36 goaltenders, Price has faced the fifth-fewest shots against per 60 minutes (28.7), is tied for 11th-fewest high-danger shots against per 60 minutes (7.6) and is middle of the pack when it comes to average shot distance, according to NaturalStatTrick. At all strengths, Price remains fifth in shots (28.5), moves to ninth in high-danger shots (7.5) and his average shot distance decreases slightly. That paints a picture of a Canadiens team that has actually been proficient when it comes to protecting Price.

Overall, too, the Canadiens are somewhat deserving of a better fate given the way they’ve controlled play. Not unlike most Julien outfits in recent years, Montreal is a high calibre club in many underlying numbers. Through 16 games this season, the Canadiens rank fifth in Corsi percentage (53.6), fourth in shots percentage (53.9), fifth in scoring chances percentage (53.6) and 10th in high-danger chances percentage (52.3) at five-a-side. Montreal has been rewarded for driving play, too, with an 8.9 shooting percentage at 5-on-5, making the league’s fourth-worst SP (.904) is the only ugly number in the bunch.

Maybe what’s most alarming is that it’s hard to keep calling this a blip on the radar for Price.

Last season, a campaign in which Price posted a .900 SP and career-worst 3.11 goals-against average, was a down year for the netminder, to be sure, but the worries about his poor performance were mitigated by the fact he had seen down years in the past only to find his form as soon as he hit the ice the following campaign. Case in point, the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign saw Price post a mediocre-at-best .905 SP across 39 appearances. That campaign, however, preceded a season in which Price finished fourth in Vezina Trophy voting and 14th in Hart Trophy balloting on the strength of a .927 SP campaign. The season after that, Price swept the end of season awards, winning the Vezina, Hart and Ted Lindsay Award as player-voted MVP with a league leading 44 wins, .933 SP and 1.96 GAA.

That’s to say it’s been rare that Price’s poor play has had much staying power. In his last 61 games, though, Price has an .899 SP at all strengths, which is tied with Scott Darling and Petr Mrazek for the league’s worst mark among netminders with 41 appearances over the past two seasons. It’s worse than the SPs of netminders Jake Allen, Cam Ward and Matt Murray. That’s hardly flattering company for Price, particularly given he’s in the first season of an eight-year, $84-million contract.

There’s still time for Price to turn it around, of course, and, to hear him tell it, the issue is “all upstairs.” But if he doesn’t find his game soon and start producing like the all-world netminder he has long been heralded as, Montreal’s successes this season might have to come in spite of Price rather than because of him.

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