MONTREAL — Cayden Primeau wasn’t perfect.
But no one expected the 20-year-old to be perfect in his NHL debut — against the third-highest scoring team in the league, behind a Montreal Canadiens team that had lost eight of its past nine and in front of 21,302 fans who packed the Bell Centre. This was going to be a herculean task and everyone knew it.
The kid was tested early and often. His nerves took some time to settle.
Colorado Avalanche defenceman Ryan Graves beat Nate Thompson to the puck after Primeau had turned aside two chances, then Graves pushed the puck into the net with his team’s ninth shot of the first period.
A little over six minutes later, Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog — playing in his first game since Oct. 26 — walked around Jeff Petry and, with a quick backhand-to-forehand deke, shoveled the puck between Primeau’s right arm and his body for the 2-0 lead.
Canadiens coach Claude Julien said both goals were ones Primeau would like to have back in the 3-2 loss. But everything the Vorhees, N.J. native did after allowing them — Matt Calvert also scored on a short-handed two-on-one that Primeau couldn’t be faulted on — showed what kind of promise Primeau has.
In the grand scheme of things, that’s an essential development. Before Primeau came up from the American Hockey League on Monday, Canadiens starter Carey Price was on pace to hit a career high in appearances over the course of the 2019-20 season. That was supposed to be prevented by the signing of Keith Kinkaid, who inked a one-year, $1.75-million contract this past summer.
But Kinkaid allowed four goals in each of his five starts through the first third of the season. So the Canadiens waived him on Monday and made the call to Primeau to see what he could offer in relief.
He didn’t win Thursday’s game, but he gave the Canadiens a chance.
If it wasn’t for Pavel Francouz, the man opposite Primeau in Colorado’s net, they’d have taken it. The 29-year-old right-catching wonder made 39 saves to improve his record to 6-2-0 this season — and improve his save percentage to a sparkling .929 in his 12 NHL appearances since making his debut last season. Afterward, Avalanche goaltending coach Jussi Parkkila acknowledged it was probably his protégé’s best performance of the season.
And here’s what Price said about Primeau: “He played great. He battled to the end. Obviously when we got down 3-0, he made a few big saves for us to keep us in and he gave us a chance to win.”
With the Canadiens trying to kill off a Ben Chiarot tripping penalty taken just 37 seconds after Calvert made it 3-0 Colorado halfway through the second period, Primeau stopped a point shot from Calder Trophy favourite and Norris Trophy candidate Cale Makar (who has eight goals and 28 points in 28 games after picking up an assist against Montreal). Primeau then stopped Nathan MacKinnon from registering his 19th goal and 45th point on a vicious one-timer, and followed that save up by diving across his crease to force a Landeskog tip wide.
Seconds later, Primeau turned aside a wicked wrist shot taken from 17 feet out by Valeri Nichushkin, and then he stopped a good one from Mikko Rantanen.
Makar, MacKinnon, Landeskog and Rantanen. Some of the biggest names in hockey. How does he put that in perspective?
“You just gotta go out like it’s any other game,” Primeau said. “And you definitely gotta step up your game when you’re facing guys at this level.”
Like when he dropped a rebound in front of his crease and recovered by making a throwback-to-Martin-Brodeur-scorpion-style save on Rantanen in the third period.
That was probably the best of Primeau’s 32 stops.
Brendan Gallagher and Nick Cousins scored to get the Canadiens within striking distance, but Francouz made 16 third-period stops — several of which were highlight-reel worthy — to keep them at bay.
Primeau would have liked to cover the Calvert shot that gave Graves the rebound he potted to open the scoring, but Thompson said after the game that the goal was his fault.
The kid was asked if the second goal, scored by Landeskog, was a perfect example of the skill difference between the NHL and the AHL, where he played his first 12 games of the season. It was a question that offered him an excuse, but he didn’t bite.
“No. They’ve got some skilled guys in the American League who can do stuff like that,” Primeau said. “The speed was something I needed to adjust to, so maybe he came in a little bit faster, but no.”
It was a response that spoke to his maturity — and perhaps his preparedness for the NHL.
The 199th pick in the 2017 draft believes in himself and, despite his nervous start, he made an impression with how he finished. Primeau did that against an excellent Colorado team — and with the Canadiens skating short a player after centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi was flipped on a heavy hit from 6-foot-6, 235-pound defenceman Nikita Zadorov that forced him out of the game with an upper-body injury just 1:32 into the first period.
“He’s calm,” Thompson said of Primeau. “I think he has a really bright future.”
Primeau’s present doesn’t look too shabby, either. And the experience he got on Thursday can only serve him well while he’s here.
“It was huge,” Primeau said. “The guys were great. It was good to get in and see the puck, see this level, and it’s more motivating, and just being able to take the experience. (And) now that (I) have that experience, (I can) just use it going forward.”
That’s big for him, and it could be big for the Canadiens — both in the short term and the long term.