Most teams in the NHL should be envious of the Colorado Avalanche’s blue line. Players like Samuel Girard and Cale Makar are still very young, and will only improve and become even more effective at propelling the team’s offence. They represent the new generation of blue-liner having vision, poise, and high-end skating. It’s where all NHL back ends are heading.
Due to their shifty blue-liners, Colorado doesn’t care about heavy forechecks. The inch you give their quarterback is still too much. They easily transform what little space they have into open ice through dominant acceleration and excellent stick-handling and passing ability.
Yet the Habs repeatedly fell into the trap of being overly aggressive deep in Colorado’s zone. Again and again they did not expect the mobility and quick thinking of the opposing defencemen. Even Nikita Zadorov, resident giant, proved agile enough to easily find support under pressure — a quick pass to Samuel Girard is often enough to find an escape.
Montreal often double-teamed the lowest player in the Colorado formation trying to stop the breakout, but they didn’t do a good enough job of sealing all rim and pass options with their sticks and bodies. Once it left their pocket full of holes, the rest of the squad was automatically defending an odd-man rush. Sometimes one Avalanche player beat two of Montreal’s forecheckers with a single play.
It then became almost impossible to stop the opposing neutral-zone attack. Defencemen were forced to retreat, had a poor gap against speedy incoming forwards, and gave up the blue line. That poor gap also made it a lot easier for opponents to manipulate defencemen with changes of speed and angles.
That’s exactly what happened on Ryan Graves’s goal. Makar beat two Habs low in the zone, and skated by a mistimed pinch from a third player to attack the retreating line of defence. He changed speed against Weber to get the puck on net, and Graves jammed in the rebound. He was first on the loose puck as the Habs forwards caught above it on the opposing breakout had stopped skating on the backcheck. It was one costly instance of a recurring problem.
Montreal came out with a much better effort in the third period against a tired Avalanche team, but the hole they dug themselves once again proved to be too deep.
It was a pleasure to watch most of Cayden Pimeau’s starts with Northeastern University over the past two years. The goalie always inspired confidence when he skated to his spot between the posts. He was the backbone of that team for his entire tenure; their star and most consistent player.
By contrast, the goalie who faced one of the very best offensive formation in the league last night didn’t exactly have the same presence. But that should be viewed as great news.
Primeau faced 35 shots, fought to protect his cage, and found ways to keep his team in the game in key moments. It was only a first step in the NHL — one that was arguably made too early — and he still managed to prove he could hold his own against some of the top players in the league.
If that’s what an unrefined, tense performance from the goalie looks like, there’s reason to get excited with projections, especially considering the proven teachings of Stephane Waite.
Primeau’s first NHL start overshawdowed Otto Leskinen’s, though it was a much more prominent role. The Finnish defenceman replaced a shaky Gustav Olofsson in the role of “skater Claude Julien wants in the lineup but won’t actually play.”
How he will hold his own in board battles and complex defensive situations remains to be seen. It was hard to evaluate him in his eight minutes of ice time, but Leskinen showed some interesting elements.
The defenceman can put up speed through a mechanically sound skating form and seemed to consistently want to drive the play forward, starting and joining the rush on a couple of occasions.
He is simply a replacement option, at least right now, but if he can stay a good enough puck-mover while limiting mistakes — something Mikey Reilly couldn’t do — he could find a niche on the third pair for the time being.