Canadiens’ roster management continues to burden team in key games

Montreal Canadiens' Jeff Petry, left, takes down Calgary Flames' Mikael Backlund as goalie Cayden Primeau, centre, and Alexander Romanov look on during third period NHL hockey action in Calgary, Saturday, April 24, 2021.(Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Considering the circumstances, Cayden Primeau did his best.

He hadn’t played a game in 22 days, none in the NHL since December of 2019, and he was being dropped into the fire against a Calgary Flames team that was 5-2-0 against his Montreal Canadiens. A Flames team staring down a golden opportunity to pull within four points of the Canadiens for that fourth and final playoff spot in the North Division.

Primeau managed 29 saves and couldn’t be faulted on three of the four goals he allowed before Rasmus Andersson scored on an empty net to seal the 5-2 win for Calgary. Still, he said he’d have liked to have stopped all of them.

Noble? Indeed.

Regrets? None. At least not for him.

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We’re certain Primeau would have not given up this chance for anything. The 21-year-old, who was selected 199th overall by the Canadiens in 2017, had earned it with a great first season in Laval and an even better sophomore one. Primeau had won 11 of 14 starts with the Rocket this year — his last seven in a row and two of the final three by shutout — before joining the Canadiens in the vacancy created by Carey Price’s concussion, and he had waited more than a year to play his third game for the big club.

“I was excited to get in,” Primeau said. “You’ve got to be ready for whenever your name is called on, so I was preparing every day in case it was going to happen. To be able to go in today was good. I felt good going into the game. Maybe a little bit sloppy off the start, but settled in and overall felt good.”

It would’ve been hard for Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme or general manager Marc Bergevin to yank it away from him after telling him on Friday it belonged to him, but you have to think they’d have done it had they felt he wouldn’t give them the best chance to win the game.

But this was anything but an easy choice. That Ducharme and Bergevin were left with such a difficult one was part of an ongoing problem. It’s been the problem since Victor Mete was claimed off waivers and Erik Gustafsson was added at the trade deadline, maxing out their cap and forcing them to use three of four non-emergency recalls to play later that day against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

They won that game, but the lack of roster flexibility at a time the Canadiens have needed it most — with injuries piling up, cap dollars spent and the schedule so unrelenting — was once again at the heart of another loss on this day, and the threat it would turn out this way was there well before they stepped on the ice at the Saddledome.

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So, pointing to it as an issue in hindsight now is impossible to avoid. Especially since it was revealed after the game that the team knew forward Tomas Tatar was attempting to play through an injury.

He was unsuccessful, leaving after two shifts in the third period and leaving the Canadiens with 10 forwards to close out a game they were chasing from behind. A game that was their second game in as many nights, their third in four days and their fourth of the week.

They knew they were going to have to start it without Jonathan Drouin (sick with a non-COVID-19-related illness) and Paul Byron (lower-body injury) and possibly finish it without Tatar, and they still opted to play Primeau instead of turning to Jake Allen or Charlie Lindgren.

Ducharme and Bergevin inserted forward Jake Evans as an emergency recall (he or Michael Frolik were the only forwards from their taxi squad who would fit under the cap) and they once again dressed seven defencemen.

“It’s not the ideal situation,” said Ducharme.

But they went with it anyways.

“When we understood that we would be missing Paulie and Jo, talking with Marc, we would’ve liked… we tried to be having 12 forwards,” Ducharme said. “But the only way we could do it today was the way we’ve done it.”

Maybe he and Bergevin saw it that way because Allen had already made three appearances this week, played in 10 of 13 games this month, and they had deemed he absolutely needed a rest. It stands to reason the last thing they wanted to do was burn him out knowing Price had returned to Montreal earlier this week to receive more treatment for his injury, with his recovery not really progressing to the point that he’d be imminently returning to the ice.

And they clearly felt dressing Allen behind Lindgren, who had won only two of his six starts in the NHL a season ago, wasn’t an option either. Sure, he had won two of his three starts in the AHL and played slightly more recently than Primeau, but he had last appeared in a game on April 9 and it was only his first since playing two in February.

But in making the decision as they did, Ducharme and Bergevin once again deprived themselves of Cole Caufield’s services in a situation they desperately could’ve used them. He’s never played a game at this level, but he’s been a superstar scorer at every other one, and it was worth testing him out after the team scored just twice in Friday’s loss—Goals 17 and 18 in 10 games since Brendan Gallagher was lost for the remainder of the regular season with a fractured right thumb.

But they thought the biggest decision they had to make was who to start in their net. For that, they take a bigger share of the loss than Primeau. And the rest of the Canadiens, who couldn’t manage two periods to match a really-well played first, take the rest of it.

Now the same tough decisions loom ahead of Monday’s game — the last one between the Canadiens and Flames, which plays huge in both team’s playoff fates. Even if Drouin, Tatar and Byron are all available for it, using the last non-emergency recall on Caufield would mean putting Evans (or someone else) on the taxi squad until injuries occur and enable the team to once again use emergency recall. It’s a Groundhog Day scenario.

But so is not being able to score enough and losing. Maybe the decision isn’t that hard after all.

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