Canadiens’ Primeau prepared for NHL debut in pressure-packed Montreal

Montreal Canadiens head coach Claude Julien discusses what advice he's given to Cayden Primeau, who's set to make his NHL debut in net vs. the Colorado Avalanche.

MONTREAL— It’s just the third-highest scoring team in the National Hockey League, led by Nathan MacKinnon (18 goals and 26 assists in 27 games), that Cayden Primeau will face off against in his debut with the Montreal Canadiens.

No big deal.

This should be a walk in the park for the 20-year-old from Vorhees, N.J., who has a 7-4-1 record, .910 save percentage and 2.58 goals-against average through his only other 12 appearances as a professional goaltender with the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket.

We’re kidding, of course.

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We anticipated Primeau, the son of former NHLer Keith Primeau, was earmarked for one of two games the Canadiens were slated to play back to back this Thursday and Friday. We just figured he’d get the one against the 13-10-3 New York Rangers, who rank 12th in the Eastern Conference standings and have the 16th-most goals in the NHL.

“I think at the end of the day, the team we’re playing tomorrow is in our conference, and whether it’s division or wild-card, there’s a chance we’ll be battling with that team down the road,” explained Canadiens coach Claude Julien.

So, Canadiens starter Carey Price will face the Rangers on Friday, and the kid, who was drafted 199th overall in 2017, is being tasked with Big Nate and his Avalanche–a team that beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-1 on Wednesday, has 17 wins through 27 games, and the seventh-best record in the league.

How has Julien prepared him for it?

“I talked to him early this morning, now I’m going to leave him alone,” the coach said. “I think it’s up to him to do his preparation and be ready to play tonight. My message to him is be true to yourself, play with confidence, do what you’ve done to get here, and I think if you do that you’re going to give us a good chance to win a hockey game.”

It’s a good message for Primeau to heed.

Never mind that he enters the bubbling cauldron that is the Montreal market right as the Canadiens have broken an eight-game winless streak with a 4-2 win over the New York Islanders on Tuesday, that 21,302 fans will pack the Bell Centre and hang on his every movement in the net, and that this will be unlike anything he has ever experienced before. Primeau must prepare just like he always does, he must trust that he can do what he has always done, and he should be able to give his team a chance to win.

That’s Primeau’s pedigree to this point. He has always prepared himself well, trusted himself, and played with confidence. It’s why he’s won 51 games and lost only 29 since leaving home for Northeastern University, where he was named the NCAA’s best goaltender after the 2018-19 season. It’s why he appeared unfazed in his only other Bell Centre start—a 4-2 pre-season win over the New Jersey Devils back on Sept. 16.

“He’s just calm,” said Julien. “He’s square (in his positioning). A lot of goalies that you like just seem to be in the right position I’d say most of the time, and he’s one of those guys who just seems to be square and in the right position and makes the right saves. He doesn’t look like a guy who’s scrambling to get back in position and that’s served him well up to date.”

It should serve Primeau well on Thursday, regardless of the fact that he has to play against a venerable opponent in the Avalanche.

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Meanwhile, the Canadiens have to play the way they did in the win against the Islanders, and the same way they did against the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers before that. Even though they lost those two games, they limited the odd-man opportunities against, they closed down rebound opportunities, and they hounded the puck all over the ice and earned the lion’s share of the scoring chances.

In other words, Montreal needs to play on its toes to give Primeau his best chance at a win.

“Let’s put it this way: He’s played well enough that he’s earned his opportunity to come here, so I don’t think we’re playing on our heels because we’ve got a young goaltender,” said Julien. “I think, if anything, you want to give him his first game, his first win, so we’ve just got to play well in front of him and I think for us doing our own jobs and doing it well will serve him much better than trying to back in and trying to do too much to try and help him out. He’s capable of stopping pucks, we’ve just got to do the job in front of him.”

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