Rocket riding Primeau through busy stretch

Photo: Micheline V

📝 by Patrick Williams

The Laval Rocket can rest later.

For now, though, they have Cayden Primeau.

In battling another hectic week on the American Hockey League schedule along with plenty of highway time, the goaltender’s efforts Sunday night made a nine-hour bus ride home much easier for the Rocket with two points packed away. Rocket head coach Jean-François Houle turned to Primeau, his workhorse goaltender, for the sixth consecutive game, and Primeau turned in 38 saves against the Hershey Bears and took the Rocket to a 4-2 win, their fourth in their past five games.

“I think [Primeau is] growing tremendously,” Houle said. “He’s been a rock back there for us, been making a lot of big saves.”

Primeau’s work capped a grueling week for Laval. Following a 3-2 home win against the high-caliber Manitoba Moose on Wednesday, the Rocket hit the road for Rochester. There they ran into streaking Amerks and departed with a 5-3 loss and a long trip south to Hershey. American Hockey League head coaches often speak of “winning the week,” and the Rocket made that happen in Sunday’s win.

Tied 2-2 in Hershey, a would-be Hershey goal early in the third period was overturned. Laval pounced. Always-on forward Rafaël Harvey-Pinard’s hustle set up a partial breakaway that forced a penalty shot. Harvey-Pinard then finished that effort with a slick backhander that beat Hershey goaltender Zach Fucale for a 3-2 lead. Harvey-Pinard completed the win with 1:34 to go in the game, taking Brandon Gignac’s feed, spinning, and fooling Fucale with a low, hard wrist shot to finish with a two-goal, one-assist night.

And then there was Primeau, who already had frustrated Manitoba with 39 saves earlier in the week. He responded this time against Hershey with 38 stops, including a perfect third period in which Hershey outshot the Rocket, 16-4, as Laval won on the road for the fourth time in 11 attempts this season.

“We’re playing really well, really good hockey the past couple of weeks,” Primeau said after the win. “So I think as a team we have a bunch of confidence, and that shows in the results as well.”

Taking a long-term view, National Hockey League opportunities could well come for several Rocket players, including Primeau.

The Montreal Canadiens have fallen to last in the Eastern Conference, and with a crush of injuries on the NHL roster, new management, and a mood for change, more job openings could come. The Rocket went on the road missing their top two scorers, forwards Laurent Dauphin and Jesse Ylönen, to recall. They are also missing defenseman Corey Schueneman and forward Michael Pezzetta to recalls, and injured captain Xavier Ouellet has been out of Houle’s lineup since Nov. 27. The six defensemen that Houle dressed Sunday night had combined for a total of 196 regular-season games in the NHL, AHL, and Swedish Hockey League.

Said Houle, “Cayden’s been doing a good job in net, and we have some players that sacrificed their bodies [against Hershey] to block shots, and I’m sure that’s appreciated from everybody.”

Photo: Laval Rocket

And then simply from a short-term perspective, the Rocket needed Primeau to handle a stretch of six games in 12 nights that finished Sunday.

“[I am] just taking advantage of the opportunity,” Primeau said of the chance to run with the Laval starting job for now. “It’s been good.

“We’ve gained our confidence, to be honest. Guys are just seizing the opportunity. Guys have been buying into what the coaches have been saying and blocking shots when need be.”

Owning an 8-6-1 record, a 2.77 goals-against average, and a .912 save percentage, the 22-year-old Primeau ranks among the AHL’s busiest goaltenders. Even with a week spent on recall to the Canadiens, he places third in the AHL in minutes (910:44), and his 16 games tie him with Logan Thompson of the Henderson Silver Knights.

In his third pro season, Primeau has made a steady rise after going to the Canadiens as a 2017 seventh-round pick. His two seasons at Northeastern University included a Hockey East championship and winning the Mike Richter Award as college hockey’s top goaltender. He turned pro in 2019, and that success continued in 2019-20 when he debuted with both the Rocket and Canadiens along with winning a spot on the AHL All-Rookie Team. Last season his work took the Rocket to a Canadian Division title, and for going 11-4-0 with a 2.10 GAA and .909 save percentage, he earned a spot on the Canadian Division All-Star Team as well.

Sunday’s win kept the 11-10-2-0 Rocket (11-10-2-0, .522) positioned fifth in a tight North Division race, just ahead of the Belleville Senators. With a good week behind them, the Rocket can begin to set their sights on tracking down the fourth-place Cleveland Monsters and third-place Toronto Marlies.

For Primeau and the Rocket now, though, it’s time to rest a little. They are off until Friday night when the Providence Bruins visit Place Bell. Then it is right back on the road as the Rocket shuttle south to Syracuse to see the Crunch the following night. Another strong week really would set up the Rocket for a strong push into the middle third of the AHL season ― one that begins on Dec. 29 following a rare 11-day Christmas break amid a run of six of seven games at Place Bell.

“Any game in this league is going to be tough and a grind, but especially doing it on the road against a team like [Hershey] and Rochester as well. Big, heavy teams,” Primeau said.

“Definitely having the next few days off before the game on Friday [is] going to be huge.”