It was a night of firsts at the Bell Centre on Thursday, with top goaltending prospect Cayden Primeau making his first career NHL start for the Montreal Canadiens. The 199th overall pick in 2017 had the unenviable task of facing down the Colorado Avalanche, one of the NHL’s elite offensive sides. While they were down Nazem Kadri, the Avalanche were bolstered by the return of Gabriel Landeskog and Andre Burakovsky.
Also making his debut was Otto Leskinen. The rookie defender slowly grew into a solid offensive contributor in the AHL with Laval and was next up to fill the void while Victor Mete was on the shelf. Pairing him up with Cale Fleury showed a bit of faith from Claude Julien in his young defenders, especially against the high-powered Avs, but also meant they’d spend the vast majority of the game watching from the bench.
The game started with a truly scary moment. As Jesperi Kotkaniemi skated toward the corner to collect a pass, he was met by Nikita Zadorov. The hulking defender crunched Kotkaniemi, tossing him to the ice after the centre’s legs were knocked out from under him, and the result was the young Finn being dumped on his head and neck. He lay motionless on the ice, and needed a lot of help getting to the room.
While Primeau turned away the first few shots he faced, the Avalanche still broke through thanks in part to a great effort by Cale Makar. The Calder favorite darted out from his own zone, blowing by Shea Weber in the Canadiens’ end, and shoveled a pass to the front of the net. Nate Thompson was late in getting back to cover his man, so Ryan Graves used the open space to slide his shot by a sprawling Primeau for an early Colorado lead.
The physicality ramped up from there, with Brendan Gallagher taking part in a huge collision in the Colorado zone. That was followed up with Fleury getting a piece of his man in an open-ice hit at his blue line, enough that Valeri Nichushkin had a number of words for the Canadiens defender after a whistle.
The Avs doubled their lead shortly afterward as Landeskog flew in on a change, danced around Jeff Petry, and put his shot far-side on Primeau.
Nathan MacKinnon was sent off for holding Artturi Lehkonen, putting the Canadiens on their first power play of the game. Montreal failed to find much offence in it, but a slick dangle from Nate Thompson back at even strength nearly netted their first goal. Despite ending the period with a shot lead, the Canadiens had plenty of work to do in the next 40 minutes.
The second period started much quieter than the first, with neither side establishing a real foothold in the opening minutes. The Canadiens did grab the first real look as Lehkonen slid by Graves and wrapped a great chance around that Francouz smothered. Lehkonen’s strong play continued, as he drew another penalty, this time on Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.
The power play again failed to generate anything positive, and did lead to something negative: another goal for Colorado as Matt Calvert broke in on an odd-man rush with just Nick Suzuki back. Suzuki tried to take the pass away, but Calvert slid his shot by Primeau to make it a 3-0 lead.
A penalty on Ben Chiarot sent the Avalanche to a power play to potentially bury the Habs in the second period. Some big stops by Primeau kept the deficit at three, but the game was quickly becoming tilted in Colorado’s favour.
The Canadiens turned to their top line to get some momentum back and it was Brendan Gallagher who provided the offence. A solid effort in the neutral zone allowed him and Phillip Danault to enter the Avalanche zone and Danault’s shot caromed off of Francouz. Gallagher was right in front to sweep the wayward puck home, and toss the Canadiens a bit of a lifeline at the end of the second period.
A late penalty by Thompson put the Canadiens’ feet back to the fire to end the period, but the penalty-killers came up big to keep the Colorado lead at just two goals heading into intermission.
An early penalty on Andre Burakovsky put the Canadiens back on the man advantage, and for the first time they finally punished Colorado for it. Max Domi worked off the right wall, sliding a pass into space for Nick Cousins, who in turn cut to the net shaking his defender. He then snapped his shot over Francouz, making it a one-goal affair.
After an odd-man rush developed, Petry was whistled for a holding penalty of his own, again forcing the Canadiens into a massive penalty kill. The Avalanche attack was vicious, but timely glove work from Cayden Primeau and stalwart defensive play fended off the man advantage to the loud cheers of the Bell Centre faithful.
It looked like Domi was the catalyst in another goal, weaving through Colorado defenders before teeing up a pass for Lehkonen. The Finnish winger one-timed the shot flawlessly, sending it to the upper part of the net, and was somehow robbed by Francouz, who dove across his crease to make the stop.
With Primeau off to the bench for the extra attacker, the Canadiens threw everything that they could at the net, but Francouz refused to budge on the goal line. Shea Weber loaded up a cluster of heavy shots in the dying seconds, including one that Joel Armia nearly swatted home in the final seconds, but it all went for naught as the Avalanche held on for a 3-2 victory.
The Canadiens now travel to New York for a showdown with the Rangers, now missing a top-nine centre in addition to Victor Mete, Jonathan Drouin, and Paul Byron. Carey Price will get the start in net, and it’s likely that Charles Hudon will re-enter the lineup to fill out the forward lines.