Canadiens’ Primeau shines, takes another step toward forming tandem with Montembeault

Watch as Montreal Canadiens forward Juraj Slafkovsky makes a sweet move to tuck the puck past Buffalo Sabres goaltender Devon Levi and win the game in the shootout for Montreal.

Cayden Primeau slid across his crease and, in snuffing out a Grade-A scoring chance for Sabres captain Kyle Okposo, made his first of 46 confidence-restoring saves in a 3-2 shootout win the Canadiens earned in Buffalo on Saturday.

It was the 24-year-old’s sixth start of the season, and it came 10 days after his last one.

That had to feel like an eternity for Primeau, given how that game went — a loss to the Florida Panthers that saw him give up five goals.

All of them beat him on the glove side that night, and four of them came over the final 20 minutes of play and left him questioning himself.

“It just played in my head a little bit,” Primeau said then.

“That just can’t happen,” he added.

It didn’t on Saturday.

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Primeau spent no time second-guessing himself in this one, starting with that pad he stretched out to stop Okposo cold.

He made a backdoor beauty on Casey Mittlestadt to erase a three-on-one opportunity for the Sabres and stopped 15 more shots before the first period ended. Then the young goaltender made a couple of his best saves on Jeff Skinner in the second and stopped 10 others from Buffalo shooters in the frame to help the Canadiens take a 2-0 lead to the third.

And after Okposo and Skinner got to Primeau in the period on two of five Sabres shots, he replied with 11 more saves and stopped all three shots he faced in overtime to set a new career high.

Saves on Tage Thompson and J.J. Peterka in the shootout helped secure the win, and they had to help give Primeau some peace of mind regarding his status with the Canadiens.

He is the team’s third goaltender, its least-used one in a rotation that’s been in effect since the beginning of the season. With performances like these, he’s proving he can be a lot more than that.

The mental resolve is a big factor. Primeau didn’t just rebound from a bad performance on Saturday; he continued to show that the bumps he hit on his development path over the last couple of years hardened him much more than they hurt him.

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Primeau was down a lot. Enough to damage the burgeoning confidence the seventh-round pick in the 2017 draft built as one of the best goaltenders to ever defend the net at Northeastern University.

But Primeau has bounced back up this season as fast as he typically moves from the butterfly to his ready position.

This was Primeau’s sixth start since the puck dropped in October, and it was his best one yet.

But his first four of five also showed to what extent he has progressed since we last saw him in this league. When Primeau beat the Detroit Red Wings on Nov. 9, it was his first win in the league since 2021. He was hardly to blame in a loss to the New Jersey Devils prior to that, and he made 42 saves in a loss to the Vegas Golden Knights right after it.

Primeau was then excellent in a win over the San Jose Sharks toward the end of November.

Then he crashed against the Panthers.

You could’ve argued the loss to Florida was going to be an outlier, but Primeau had to prove it after struggling to rebound over prior seasons in the NHL.

That he did in such convincing fashion only reinforced his worth to the Canadiens and helped build the case for how far he can go with them in the future.

It’s what they were hoping to see from him in keeping him on the roster and refusing to waive him and risk losing him for nothing to another team. And with one more year under contract, at just $890,000 against the salary cap, he’s making it harder and harder for them to consider trading him.

You don’t expect Primeau to continue stopping 47 shots per game, but if he keeps playing as he has since the start of the season, the only place he should be moving to is in front of Montreal’s net more frequently.

With Samuel Montembeault also playing great and locked in for three more seasons at $3.15 million per year, Primeau can use opportunity like that to prove he can help give the Canadiens a tandem they can rely on for years.

Rough night leaves Canadiens hurting

Justin Barron and Kaiden Guhle both followed Tanner Pearson to the locker room in this game, but they came back.

Pearson didn’t, and the reason for that has to be a concern. The 31-year-old blocked a shot with his left hand in the first period, and that’s the last place you’d want him to get hit.

Pearson was reduced to just 14 games for the Vancouver Canucks after breaking his left hand in a game against the Canadiens last season. He had multiple surgeries to resolve the injury and, at one point, questioned whether or not he’d ever return to play in the NHL.

Things started to turn in the summer, and Pearson got off to a strong start following his September trade to the Canadiens, scoring three goals and five points in his first five games.

After tapering off, Pearson snapped a 19-game goal drought in a win over the Seattle Kraken on Monday and appeared to be picking up his game again before getting hurt in Buffalo.

He was ruled out after the first period with an upper-body injury.

Here’s hoping this one doesn’t keep Pearson out nearly as long as the last one.

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The Canadiens were fortunate Eric Robinson’s boarding major in the second period didn’t take Barron out of the game — they scored both their goals while Robinson was peeling off his equipment in the Sabres’ locker room — and even more so that Guhle appeared no worse for wear after a collision with Rasmus Dahlin appeared to hurt him and kept him from the bench at the start of the third period.

We’ll see if both players are available for Sunday’s game at the Bell Centre, versus the Nashville Predators.

Some firsts for Slafkovsky

A fight with Connor Clifton near the end of the third period was 19-year-old Juraj Slafkovsky’s first in the NHL, and he handled himself fairly well in it.

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Slafkovsky handled his breakaway after overtime — up against another one of the best goaltenders in Northeastern University history, Montrealer Devon Levi — even better, notching his first shootout winner in style.

It was a perfect way to punctuate an authoritative performance for the first-overall pick in the 2022 draft, who has played his best hockey in the league this week.

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