It’s was a 14th loss in 18 games, and it was fully earned by the Montreal Canadiens.
But at least there was one positive: a stellar performance by goaltender Cayden Primeau.
The former seventh-round pick in 2017 was the only reason the Canadiens weren’t blown out of Madison Square Garden by the New York Rangers.
On this night, just seven miles from Harlem, they made their counterparts look like the Globetrotters. Sweet Georgia Brown should’ve been playing throughout the game — especially during the first period — as the visitors team just watched the Blueshirts skate circles around their zone and create enough quality scoring chances to win by more than a three-pointer.
Instead, the Rangers barely skated away with a 3-2 win because Primeau stood tall from start to finish.
“He was good,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme. “He was solid.”
Primeau was forced to be much better than that by a Canadiens team that was loose with the puck and inattentive in its coverage.
In the first period, he made two highlight saves on Filip Chytil and made 13 stops on 14 more shots. On Kappo Kakko’s opening goal, like Chris Kreider’s and Julien Gauthier’s after it, Primeau didn’t have a prayer.
But there were plenty of other shots in this game where that appeared to be the case — none better than the one Ryan Strome took from the apex of the slot in the third period, with the Rangers up 2-1 and Canadiens defenceman Brett Kulak swimming on his belly near the crease, when Primeau lifted his glove up and snatched a goal away — and the 22-year-old came up big.
“The whole game, he was awesome,” said Jake Evans, who, along with a handful of other Canadiens players not named Primeau, put in a commendable effort from start to finish.
The goaltender didn’t get the result he deserved, but he did his job.
The Canadiens can take positives from it, and perhaps even some confidence if Primeau gets the nod again on Thursday against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But what Primeau takes from it is more important. Every game of experience he gets at this level brings him closer to his goal of one day becoming the starting goaltender for this franchise.
It’s a role the Vorhees, N.J., native has been dreaming of since the day he was drafted, but he had be feeling very far from it when the Canadiens picked up 25-year-old Samuel Montembeault before the season started. With Carey Price suddenly electing to check into the NHL/NHLPA’s players assistance program, the door appeared open for Primeau to back up Jake Allen, but it was quickly shut with this move.
Had Primeau had a stronger showing in training camp and pre-season, he would’ve walked right through it. But the decision was made to bring in someone else because his confidence didn’t appear to be there.
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It hadn’t been at this level dating back to when he debuted in 2019. In four games with the Canadiens last season, Primeau went 1-2-1 and had an .849 save percentage. He was playing when they desperately needed wins, when Price was hurt and Allen was exhausted and the team was life and death to make the playoffs.
But Primeau couldn’t deliver the type of performance he put in on Tuesday.
The result might have been the same for him in this one, but the process appeared to be a big improvement.
Primeau told reporters at MSG it was good to see some shots early and often, good to come in and play fresh off a game on Saturday with the AHL’s Laval Rocket — he had waited quite some time after being recalled last season and that certainly contributed to how things went for him — and that he was just trying to keep things simple and not overcomplicate them.
He succeeded, thanks in part to the work he had put into “tracking,” and “skating,” in his words.
We’d suggest Primeau’s mindset had something to do with it, too, because it’s clear he felt he had dropped down the depth chart going to Laval while Montembeault took up residence in Montreal, and he approached Tuesday’s game as an opportunity to show he can play just as well — if not much better — at this level.
“I think there’s a battle amongst all the goalies in the organization,” Primeau said. “That’s across the board everywhere. Even down in Laval, Michael (McNiven) and I have a great friendly competition and competitive edge to our relationship.”
As Price gets himself closer and closer to playing — it’s expected he’ll hit the ice sometime before the end of the week for some solo work in Brossard — and Allen recovers from a concussion that could see him return soon, it’s likely Primeau goes back to the Rocket to resume that competition with McNiven.
But this game was good for his confidence. It was another building block on top of the solid start Primeau has gotten off to with the Rocket, and there might be a couple of more to pile on before he goes back.
On a night where not much else of note happened, with the exception of Michael Pezzetta taking on the NHL’s heavyweight champ, Ryan Reaves, and Christian Dvorak scoring a goal and adding an assist after putting up just one goal and five points in the first 17 games and going the last five without any, this was a positive.