Steady Primeau key to Rocket’s Game 4 win

Photo: Vitor Munhoz

📝 by Patrick Williams

Thanks in no small part to Cayden Primeau, the Laval Rocket are now in a 2-2 series with the Springfield Thunderbirds rather than attempting to fend off elimination tonight in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Game 5 of the best-of-seven set is tonight at Place Bell (7 ET, AHLTV).

“Their goalie was really good,” Thunderbirds head coach Drew Bannister said after last night’s 3-2 overtime loss. “He had to make some difficult saves, and he’s played well for them.”

An early Springfield onslaught saw the visitors fire 16 shots on goal in the first nine minutes of play, taking a 2-0 lead on goals by Mackenzie MacEachern and Dakota Joshua. But thanks to Primeau, that score held until the Rocket could collect themselves, begin to counterpunch, and chisel away at that two-goal hole.

After the Rocket had brought the game to 2-2, Springfield mounted another attack through the third period and into overtime. But Primeau and Laval again managed to withstand that push and eventually win the game when Rafaël Harvey-Pinard trickled a puck past Springfield’s Joel Hofer, who was excellent himself in making 48 saves.

Primeau stopped the final 30 shots he faced on the night.

After Kevin Poulin had started a postseason-opening Game 1 loss to the Syracuse Crunch back on May 6, Rocket head coach J-F Houle turned the Laval net over to Primeau. The third-year pro has started every game since, going 8-3 with a 2.17 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage.

For the parent Montreal Canadiens, who are awaiting what might be next for Carey Price, the organizational focus is heavily on the 22-year-old Primeau. Montreal selected the 6-foot-3, 200-pound son of long-time NHL forward Keith Primeau as a seventh-round draft pick in 2017.

Following two standout seasons at Northeastern University, Primeau turned pro in 2019 having won the Mike Richter Award as the top goaltender in men’s college hockey as a sophomore. He also took the Hockey East tournament’s most valuable player award, and won a silver medal with Team USA at the IIHF World Junior Championship.

Since then, Primeau has come along nicely in Laval. He was a member of the Canadian Division All-Star Team during the abbreviated 2020-21 American Hockey League season, and this season he finished 16-12-5 in 33 regular-season games with the Rocket, posting a 2.94 GAA and a .909 save percentage. He also earning 12 appearances in the NHL with the Canadiens.

As part of the Calder Cup Playoff development experience, Primeau and the Rocket have been tested by varying opposing approaches. Syracuse, their division semifinal opponent, plays a very structured game. Rochester, in the North Division Finals, could utilize a run-and-gun approach and play an excellent transition game. And now the Thunderbirds have brought a much different, much more physical, and disruptive game plan in an attempt to solve Primeau.

“It’s been an emotional series so far,” Primeau told reporters last night. “The more you play each other, the more you hate each other. So yeah, I can only expect that it’s going to get even more physical as the games go on.”

Another sellout of 10,043 fans filled Place Bell last night as well. Primeau is gaining additional experience playing before a packed building, just like he hopes to one day regularly do with the Canadiens at Bell Centre.

“The fans were helping us all game. They stayed with it, even when we went down 2-0 early in the first,” Primeau said. “Getting that goal at the end of the first was huge for us, and I think it’s a credit to the crowd for going crazy.”