Canadiens are losing goaltending battle for first time in playoffs

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Carey Price has finally met his match this postseason.

When examining the stunning success of the Montreal Canadiens in reaching the Stanley Cup Final, goaltending is the first place you can look. Price has played at a Conn Smythe level and been the Canadiens’ best player all postseason. In each of the first three rounds he was the best goalie on the ice and a game-changing (and series-changing) presence in each matchup.

He was lights out when the Canadiens needed to overcome a 3-1 First Round deficit against Toronto.

He shut down the Winnipeg Jets in a four-game sweep and outplayed last year’s Vezina Trophy winner, Connor Hellebuyck.

Then he outplayed both Marc-Andre Fleury (this year’s Vezina Trophy winner) and Robin Lehner (a Vezina Trophy finalist two years ago) in the semifinals.

In each series Price topped his counterpart in almost every major goaltending category. Nobody could match him save for save. When the Canadiens needed a stop, he gave it to them. They won the goalie battle every time. When you win the goalie battle, you are probably going to win the series.

[NHL ON NBC STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That brings us to this series against Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Tampa Bay Lightning, which the Canadiens trail 2-0 heading into Game 3 (8 p.m. ET, NBC; livestream) on Friday night.

When you look at the overall numbers there is a good argument to be made that the Canadiens have, for the most part, held their own against the defending champs. They have the edge in shot attempts. They have more scoring chances and high-danger chances. Natural Stat Trick has them with a slight edge in expected goals in all situations and during 5-on-5 play. They put 43 shots on goal in their Game 2 loss while only allowing 23 shots against. There is reason to believe that they are playing far better than the 8-2 aggregate on the scoreboard would lead you to believe.

The biggest difference? For the first time this postseason they are not only losing the goalie battle, they are getting completely blown out in it through the first two games.

Here is a quick look at situational save percentages (via Natural Stat Trick) for the Canadiens and their opponents in each round. Notice the advantage they had in the first three rounds, especially in the second and third rounds, and the disadvantage they are at here.

The only round before this where it was even close was the First Round series against Toronto, and even that was a tale of two different series. In Games 5 through 7, where Montreal won three in a row to take the series, Price dominated it. That is where he really started his run toward Conn Smythe contention.

Against Winnipeg and Vegas it was not even close, especially on the penalty kill where Price was quite literally perfect.

But look at the series against Tampa Bay and see where the edge sits. All on the Lightning side with Vasilevskiy. It is not even so much that Price is playing poorly. The Canadiens have certainly not helped him out with their puck management and have given the Lightning way too many chances in transition, a terrible recipe for success against this team.

What it’s really about is Vasilevskiy not blinking and not giving Montreal anything. It is another stunning performance from the league’s best goalie who continues to shine in the biggest moments. Entering the series Vasilevskiy had overall numbers that matched Price’s through the entire playoffs, while carrying a streak of four consecutive shutouts in series clinching wins. Now, two games into the Stanley Cup Final, he has allowed only two goals. He is the best goalie in hockey, and seems to elevate his game even more in the bigger situations.

[Canadiens remaining confident ahead of Game 3]

This is a big part of what makes the Lightning such a powerhouse team in the NHL right now.

Their forwards and defense are as good as anybody else in the NHL. They have star power and individual award winners at each level of the ice, with Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Steven Stamkos leading the forwards and Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and Mikhail Sergachev carrying things on defense. That alone makes them a Stanley Cup contender and one of the best teams in the league. But when you add what is probably the best goalie into the league behind that as a last line of defense and it just makes them a complete force. They have leaned on Vasilevskiy more this postseason than they did a year ago on their Stanley Cup run, and he has been amazing.

There is still time for this to turn around for Montreal. Price went into superman mode starting as late as Game 5 against Toronto to help get Montreal through that series, and he is certainly capable of doing it again.

The problem is going to be that even if he does, the goalie at the other end still might be able to match him save for save.

Goaltending helped the Canadiens get here.

Now they are getting a taste of what life has been like on the other side.

2021 NHL playoff schedule: Stanley Cup Final – (TB leads 2-0)

Game 1: Lightning 5, Canadiens 1
Game 2: Lightning 3, Canadiens 1
Game 3: Fri. July 2: Lightning at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock) – livestream
Game 4: Mon. July 5: Lightning at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock) – livestream
*Game 5: Wed. July 7: Canadiens at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
*Game 6: Fri. July 9: Lightning at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
*Game 7: Sun. July 11: Canadiens at Lightning, 7 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)

*if necessary

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Canadiens are losing goaltending battle for first time in playoffs originally appeared on NBCSports.com