Cayden Primeau shines as Canadiens beat Sabres 3-2 in shootout

Goalie makes 46 saves in Buffalo, while Juraj Slafkovsky scores the winning goal for Habs and also gets into his first NHL fight.

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There was reason to wonder why the Canadiens started Cayden Primeau in goal Saturday night in Buffalo against the Sabres.

Primeau allowed five goals in his previous start — all high to the glove side — in a 5-1 loss to the Florida Panthers nine days earlier at the Bell Centre. It dropped his record this season to 2-3-0 with a 3.72 goals-against average and an .886 save percentage.

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There was also reason to wonder why the Canadiens are still carrying three goalies 27 games into the season.

After Samuel Montembeault played the previous two games — a 4-2 win over the Seattle Kraken and a 4-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings — starting Jake Allen in goal against the Sabres and going back to Montembeault on Sunday at the Bell Centre against the Nashville Predators (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM) seemed like the smart move.

But Primeau proved head coach Martin St. Louis — and whoever else in management was involved in the decision to start him in Buffalo — right, making 46 saves as the Canadiens beat the Sabres 3-2 in a shootout. Both goals on Primeau were to the blocker side and his save percentage for the game was .958.

This marked the second straight game and the sixth time this season the Canadiens have allowed more than 40 shots against.

Jayden Struble and Nick Suzuki scored for the Canadiens in regulation time, while Cole Caufield, Jesse Ylönen and Juraj Slafkovsky scored in the four-round shootout. Ylönen scored in the third round to keep the Canadiens alive (he’s now 2-for-2 this season on shootouts and 3-for-3 in his career) before Slafkovsky scored the winner.

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Jeff Skinner and Kyle Okposo scored for the Sabres in regulation time, while Victor Olofsson and Owen Power scored in the shootout. Primeau stopped JJ Peterka to start the fourth round of the shootout, setting the stage for Slafkovsky’s game-winner with a nice deke to his backhand. Slafkovsky is now 1-for-2 in shootouts this season.

The Canadiens improved their record to 12-12-3, moving two points ahead of the seventh-place Sabres (11-14-3) in the Atlantic Division standings.

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Primeau kept the Canadiens in the game in the first period when they were outshot 17-7 and the Sabres went 0-for-3 on the power play. The Sabres finished the game 0-for-5 with the man advantage, while the Canadiens went 1-for-4.

Dollard-des-Ormeaux native Devon Levi was in goal for the Sabres, playing for the first time against his hometown team. He made 29 saves.

“I wanted to bounce back, not dwell on the game too much against Florida,” Primeau told reporters in Buffalo after the game. So it was good to get back there, feel good about my game again.”

With defenceman Arber Xhekaj now demoted to the AHL’s Laval Rocket and forward Michael Pezzetta being made a healthy scratch to make room for Joel Armia, the Sabres took plenty of liberties against the Canadiens without much fear of reprisals. The Sabres’ Eric Robinson ran Canadiens defenceman Justin Barron into the boards from behind at the 11-minute mark of the second period, receiving a major penalty and a game misconduct. Kaiden Guhle tried to come to Barron’s defence and took a roughing penalty.

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Struble opened the scoring for the Canadiens 1:59 later when it was four-on-four with his first NHL goal on a nice give-and-go with fellow defenceman Johnathan Kovacevic. Suzuki put the Canadiens up 2-0 only 14 seconds later when he took a drop pass from Mike Matheson at his own blue line on a power play, carried the puck into the Sabres zone and then beat Levi with a shot high to the blocker side for his eighth goal of the season. That ties the Suzuki for the team lead in goals with Sean Monahan.

The Sabres tied it up within the first seven minutes of the third period with goals from Skinner and Okposo, following a bad giveaway by Barron, after which a visibly upset St. Louis called a timeout. At the 15:44 mark of the period, the Sabres’ Connor Clifton appeared to stick Slafkovsky between the legs from behind after they had a battle along the boards behind the Buffalo net. That resulted in the 19-year-old Slavkovsky dropping his gloves and getting into his first NHL fight.

“As soon as it started, I blacked out and I didn’t really think about anything,” Slafkovsky told reporters in Buffalo after the game while sporting a scrape under his left eye. “I was just going forward. My first time.”

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Christian Dvorak had a chance to win the game for the Canadiens on a breakaway with 1:34 left in the third period, but he was stopped by Levi. Twenty-eight seconds later, Dvorak — who has now gone 15 games without a goal — took a tripping penalty, meaning the Canadiens had to play the last 1:06 of the third period and the first 54 seconds of overtime short-handed.

The Sabres couldn’t beat Primeau.

‘I think his last start he wasn’t too happy with it,” St. Louis told reporters in Buffalo after the game when asked about Primeau. “I thought tonight was an opportunity to feel good about himself. To me it, was a bounce-forward game — it wasn’t a bounce-back. I think he bounced higher than where he was before his last game. Without his play, our PK tonight, I feel like it was the difference, especially early on in the game.”

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Slafkovsky finished the game with two shots and one hit in 18:10 of ice time while playing on the first line with Suzuki and Cole Caufield for the third straight game.

“I feel confident,” Slafkovsky, who has 2-5-7 totals this season, said. “I want the puck a lot. I want to make the plays. I want to find the boys because they’re finding me and I want to be the same as them. Playing with the best players on the team, I just want to make plays as they do and do all the stuff that they do.”

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Caufield had a team-high nine shots on goal, but failed to score for the fifth straight game and is stuck on seven goals, which has him on pace to finish the season with 21. Last season, Caufield scored 26 goals in 46 games before suffering a shoulder injury that required surgery. Caufield had a 16.5 shooting percentage last season, while his shooting percentage this season has dropped to 6.8.

It looks like the Canadiens could have more bad injury news after veteran Tanner Pearson appeared to block a shot with his left hand during the first period and he didn’t return. That’s the same hand Pearson broke last season while with the Vancouver Canucks, limiting him to 14 games. Pearson’s career appeared to be in jeopardy after complications with several surgeries on his hand before the Canadiens acquired him in September after the hand had finally healed.

The Canadiens were flying back to Montreal after the game and it will be interesting to see who starts in goal Saturday night against the Predators.

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