Carey Price faces an up-ice battle to claim the starting goaltender position for Team Canada at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. If the tournament started today, I’d foresee Price in as the third string goaltender. Don’t get me wrong, I still have fond memories of his performance at the 2007 World Junior Championships and want him to start as much as the next fan. However, his track record in the last two seasons places him at a disadvantage going in.
Of the goaltenders invited to this week’s orientation camp in Calgary, many would agree that Price ranks ahead of both Mike Smith and Braden Holtby. Whether or not he bests either Roberto Luongo or Corey Crawford leaves room for debate.
There are also the goalies left off Canada’s invitation list that could play their way into contention. Of the potential ‘dark horse’ candidates, Marc-Andre Fleury and Cam Ward are the most intriguing. Both have won the Stanley Cup, while Fleury was also Canada’s third string goalie in Vancouver 2010. Still, Carey’s main competition comes in the form of two deserving netminders: Luongo and Crawford.
Luongo was the man for Canada in 2010. He inherited the crease from Martin Brodeur when the latter faltered with a shoot-out win against Switzerland followed by a loss to the United States. A year later, Luongo backstopped the Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Finals before ultimately bowing out to the Boston Bruins in 7 games.
Luongo’s international experience extends beyond the Olympics. The Florida Panthers’ perennial inability to make the playoffs provided Luongo with the chance to play in several World Championships. Overall, Luongo holds a 17-2-3 record internationally, with 4 shutouts and a GAA of 1.94 while bearing the red maple leaf.
While Crawford has never represented Canada internationally, he just won the Stanley Cup and has momentum on his side. If Crawford can continue the success he had last season, he will assert his self as a candidate for the starting job. Many have already counted the 28-year-old out of the running, which may even qualify him for underdog status.
While Price won Gold at the World Juniors and the AHL’s Calder Cup with Hamilton Bulldogs in 2007, his big game success has not yet translated to the NHL level. His only playoff round victory came in 2008 against the Boston Bruins, a seven game series that preluded a quick five game exit courtesy of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Price’s best regular season came in 2010-2011, the year after rival Jaroslav Halak was sent the St. Louis Blues for a chap named Lars Eller. In 72 games, Carey went 38-26-8, picked up 8 shutouts, and seemed to be rounding into the franchise goaltender the Habs drafted fifth overall at the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. Unfortunately, what followed was a miserable 2011-2012 season that saw the Canadiens finish last place in the Eastern Conference.
Luongo and Crawford aren’t perfect, either. Last season was tumultuous and dramatic for the former, who sought a trade after he lost the starting role in Vancouver as he was out-played by Cory Schneider. With the New Jersey Devils acquiring Schneider at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, Luongo is the undisputed starting goaltender for the Canucks heading into next season. Whether or not he will be able to put the past behind him will factor greatly into his chances of starting for Canada.
Meanwhile, it’s easy to forget that Crawford split goaltending duties with Ray Emery last season. Emery, who went 17-1-0 with the Chicago, suffered a lower-body injury that forced him to sit out the final two games of the regular season and the first five playoff games. That was the only window Crawford needed to channel the Carolina Hurricanes’ Cam Ward, circa 2006. With Emery moving onto Philadelphia as a free agent, the question with Crawford moving forward is whether or not he can maintain his success with a much heavier workload as the Blackhawks’ number one goaltender.
One of the biggest challenges Team Canada faces in Sochi is the large international ice surface. While emphasis has been placed on selecting players with elite skating and foot-speed, the goalies will need to adapt their game as well. This is where Luongo’s and Price’s experience trumps Crawford’s. With the rink 15 feet wider than in the NHL, goaltenders need to adjust to ensure they cover the angles effectively. They also have to remain focused in order to maintain their positioning.
One international rule that will play into Price’s favour is the ability to play the puck anywhere behind the net. Price is well known for his puck-handling ability and has even tried to score a goal into empty nets from time to time. The ability to control the puck and move it out of the zone quickly would add a favourable dimension to Canada’s game down low and around the boards.
Here are some keys to success if Price is going to land the starting role for Canada:
Strong start to 2013-2014 campaign – Price will need to be in top form by the end of training camp and preseason in order to ensure he helps the Habs get to a fast start. Establishing a confident presence early on in the season will go a long way to impressing Team Canada’s management committee.
Remain consistent – Carey can’t afford to have poor performance every few games. The Olympic tournament is short and requires goalies to play high-intensity hockey that ramps up with each subsequent elimination game. In Sochi, bad games cannot be afforded.
Stay Healthy – The last two seasons have ended in injury for Carey Price. A concussion caused an early end to his 2011-2012 season, while a knee injury knocked him out of the 2013 playoffs after Game 4 in the First Round against the Ottawa Senators. It’s hard to represent your country when you’re on the injury reserve.
Steal some games! – We’ve all seen those games when your team comes out flat and the opposition starts skating circles around them, berating the goalie with shot after shot. Every now and again, that goalie stands on his head and helps his team win a game they had no business being in. Seldom in the last two years have we seen this from Price. It’s one thing to steal a point in the NHL, but at the Olympic level one must win outright.