(Buffalo, NY) Martin St-Louis’ post-game press briefing draws to a close when a playful voice comes from behind the scrum.
“Did the number 20 tonight make you think of another number 20?” ”, we hear.
We turn around and here is the always funny Colby Armstrong, now an analyst, once a snarky player, who wore the 20 for the Canadian a decade ago. His quip therefore bore today’s number 20, Juraj Slafkovsky, the name on everyone’s lips after the Canadian’s 3-2 victory over the Sabers in a shootout.
“It was the first time he scored in a shootout, the first time he fought. A couple of firsts, but it’s not the first time he played physical and intense like that,” rejoiced St-Louis.
The CH coach should especially be delighted with the continuation of the great Slovakian’s experience with Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki. The search for a complementary winger for CH’s two offensive stars was one of St-Louis’ most difficult mandates this season. If you have a Canadiens jersey, skates and can breathe, you have a good chance of having played with Mr. Caufield and Mr. Suzuki so far.
After three games, the addition of Slafkovsky as a complementary piece favored the duo. Certainly, their three-way results are not that stunning. At 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick: 1-2 in goals scored and allowed, 72-70 in shot attempts, 15-15 in quality scoring chances.
But Slafkovsky, the very first pick in the 2022 draft, theoretically a future cornerstone of the team, appears transformed alongside the two sidekicks. He buzzed again all evening, found the passing lines towards Caufield and disturbed the opponent on the forecheck. He remains young and can make blunders, like the one at the end of the second period which caused chaos in Montreal, but overall, we are far from the faded player at the start of the season.
I feel confident. I want the puck, I want to make plays, I want to find the guys, because they find me. I play with the best players on the team. I don’t want to be the worst player of the trio. I just want to make games like them.
Primeau bounces back
Slafkovsky’s name was on everyone’s lips, it was said. In fact, we lied and your complaints to the Press Council will be justified. The name Cayden Primeau was quite popular too.
This would be the case for any goalkeeper who, like him, won by stopping 46 shots. But the context makes his performance impressive, because in his last start, on November 30, he was riddled with five goals, all on the glove side.
This time, he held his ground from the start and even triggered, in the second period, “Primeau, Primeau” from a crowd full of red sweaters. An eloquent demonstration for the dozen NHL recruiters on site, knowing that the Canadian will sooner or later have to trade one of his three goalies.
“We’re going to get two points with Primeau’s play and our numerical disadvantage,” said St-Louis. If we don’t take penalties… Especially at the start of the match. We took three in the first half. It allowed us to stay in the match.
“It was a big match for him. He was not happy with his last match. There he does not have [rebondi]. He’s gone further than where he was before. »
A goal before a penalty!
Since we’re here, a third name was circulating in the corridors of the KeyBank Center: Jayden Struble.
Think about it: in four years at Northeastern University, Struble had 190 penalty minutes and scored just 9 goals. It would have been bold to bet that he would score his first NHL goal before visiting the dungeon, but that’s what he managed by redirecting a pass shot from Johnathan Kovacevic.
“It’s a crazy statistic,” he conceded. I try to be disciplined. I definitely don’t want to harm the team by taking penalties. So it’s going well, yes. »
It may be going well, but like Slafkovsky, like Primeau, he too has his ups and downs. At the start of the third period, the defensive duos were out of phase since Kaiden Guhle was still in the locker room. Struble therefore found himself with Gustav Lindström for the duration of a presence, and the two backs did not communicate properly to cover the always awkward Jeff Skinner. Result: a lonely Skinner in the slot started the Sabres’ comeback by scoring.
“I had just made a bad pass in the middle, which was not easy to control. And yes, there was a bit of confusion. So I was relieved that we won, because I felt guilty for that goal,” Struble admitted.
All these performances put together gave a very imperfect victory for CH, imperfect because St-Louis had to ask for a timeout, which he furnished with a few words which were not repeated, in order to bring the team back In the right way.
But St-Louis said it during its press briefing Thursday: its team is “learning to play hockey.” Which will inevitably come with moments like this.
The fact remains that this victory was mainly achieved thanks to better than usual performances from some young people. Quite the opposite of the triumph of October 23, still in Buffalo, which had been the work of veterans. But with Jake Allen who remained in Montreal, David Savard injured and several veterans slowing down offensively, this team needs the help of its young people. They responded to the call on Saturday.
With nine shots on target and three more off target, he did everything but score. Under the circumstances, he did not steal his goal in the shootout, his first of the season in five attempts.
Barron and his partner, Kaiden Guhle, had a rough night Thursday. Guhle regained his composure, but it was very difficult for Barron, who increased the number of blunders in his zone.
The number of the match
Jeff Skinner always has fun against the Canadian. His goal was his 25e, in 40 matches, against CH. Among active players, only Alexander Ovechkin (37) and Auston Matthews (26) have more goals against CH.
Pearson falls in battle
Saturday morning, our good friends at NHL Injury Viz reminded us that the Canadian ranks second in the NHL – behind the Sharks – for games missed due to injury by its players this season, with 118, a number that does not include Carey Price. The imminent return of David Savard suggested an imminent improvement, but Tanner Pearson withdrew at the end of the first period, injured in his upper body. In his last presence, the veteran blocked a shot from JJ Peterka, and everything suggests that he was injured on this play, to his arm or left hand. Note that it is on this same hand that he underwent half a dozen operations last season. The Habs were counting on Michael Pezzetta as a spare forward for this match, so the team is not required to recall a forward for this Sunday’s game in Montreal. We will have to see in what condition the players arrive at the Bell Center, however, because Justin Barron and Kaiden Guhle both had to return to the locker room during the match, before returning to the game.
Saturday morning, many CH players praised the skills of Rasmus Dahlin in possession of the puck. However, he showed that he could also have an impact without the puck, distributing hard-hitting hits. He saved his most resounding shoulder blow for Sean Monahan at the end of the match, but also hurt Guhle at the end of the second period, after the Canadian defender had fallen. Dahlin finished the game with six hits, almost as many as the 18 Habs skaters (10).
Buffalo’s KeyBank Center could sometimes be mistaken for an Urgel Bourgie lounge in recent years. Customs restrictions in times of pandemic, perhaps also a decade of mediocrity from the Sabres, have made this once intimidating amphitheater very dull. On Saturday, however, the two teams performed in a lively arena as in the good years of Daniel Brière and Jean-Pierre Dumont. The usual contingent of Canadian supporters certainly showed up, but any “Go Habs Go” was systematically buried by loud boos. The Athletic reported last week that crowds at Sabers games are up 15% from last season. A healthy Buffalo market is obviously good news for the NHL.