Devils' Tyler Toffoli scores hat trick to spoil Cayden Primeau's chance to shine

Devils 5, Canadiens 2. “I’m happy with the way I competed and battled,” says goalie Cayden Primeau

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Cayden Primeau, the Canadiens’ third-string goaltender, had to play sooner or later.

But against the New Jersey Devils, one of the NHL’s elite teams? One that believes it’s capable of challenging this season for the Stanley Cup? And with Montreal playing its second game in as many nights and in the midst of a stretch that will see it playing four times in six days?

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Who knows what went into management’s decision to start the 24-year-old Tuesday night at the Bell Centre? Were they hoping to showcase Primeau for a potential trade? Did they believe, if Primeau crashed and burned, it would be easier to place him on waivers, hoping he wouldn’t be claimed, before demoting him to the AHL’s Laval Rocket?

“He had to be patient to get his opportunity,” head coach Martin St. Louis said pre-game. “He’s getting it tonight. It’s a great opportunity.”

Primeau wasn’t the reason the Canadiens lost 5-2 to the Devils. He made some big saves at critical times, keeping Montreal in the game. He already had made 20 stops through slightly more than 35 minutes.

But neither did Primeau do himself any favours, allowing a rebound on one of New Jersey’s goals, while being beaten to his glove side on three others. Primeau allowed a late second-period score with the teams tied 1-1, then was beaten on a power-play goal in the opening minute of the third.

In 22 career NHL games, including 18 starts, Primeau now has a 3-13-2 record.

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“It’s tough to stay sharp when you’re practising, and I haven’t played in a month,” Primeau said. “Going into it I just wanted to compete and battle, not really focus on goals (because) goals go in. But it was the timing of the goals. End of the second period (with the opportunity to enter the intermission) going in 1-1, it’s a completely different game.

“You have to be ready for everything,” added Primeau, who had two days’ notice he was playing and didn’t accompany the team to Buffalo for Monday night’s victory. “You want to play against the best. It was a good challenge. I’m happy with the way I competed and battled. Tomorrow you can look back at the goals and tweak what you have to.”

Former Canadien Tyler Toffoli paced the Devils with three goals, including one into an empty net, giving him four this season. Alexander Holtz and captain Nico Hischier added singles. Jack Hughes, New Jersey’s leading scorer, contributed four assists, giving him four goals and 14 points in five games.

The Devils, who entered the game with the league’s best power-play, went 2-for-4 with the man advantage.

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Defenceman Justin Barron, with his second goal in as many games, opened the scoring for Montreal and played his most-complete game this season, teamed with veteran Mike Matheson, who produced the Canadiens’ other goal on an end-to-end rush, coming on the power-play midway through the third period with Primeau on the bench for an extra skater.

It was a bittersweet game for Matheson. He had a team-leading five shots while logging a team-high 26 minutes, 37 seconds of ice time. While Matheson blocked two shots, he also was guilty of giving the puck away four times. The Canadiens committed 20 turnovers — the kiss of death against an opportunistic team like the Devils.

“I think it would have been easy for us to look at the schedule, have an excuse and (say) we didn’t have it tonight,” Matheson said. “It shows that we really care and want to get to that next level and want to push the pace to get there as quickly as possible.”

If the defeat wasn’t difficult enough, the Canadiens will be without unsung defenceman David Savard between six and eight weeks with a fractured left hand, sustained Monday night. The team recalled Gustav Lindström on an emergency basis from Laval. He was paired with Arber Xhekaj, but was limited to 11:21 of ice time.

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“I’m not really sure how we’re going to fill that and address it,” St. Louis said of Savard’s extended absence. “But I saw some really good things from (Barron) and Lindström on the right side. We’ll take it as it comes. I don’t have a clear answer, but we’re going to manage.

“We fought,” he added. “We had it tough at the start of the third. They were on top of us. We couldn’t get some room. It could have been easy to quit. We fought. To me, that’s a really good habit. If you quit, you’re guaranteed one thing — you’re not going to get what you want.”

The Canadiens (3-2-1) get a day off Wednesday before entertaining Columbus Thursday night.

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