Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens fall to the Dallas Stars

The Montreal Canadiens had a perfect trip out west for the first two of three starts, but fell short in the third on Saturday.

The Habs took a win in Arizona against the Coyotes, then another victory in a comeback thriller over the Las Vegas Golden Knights to start the voyage. The Habs tried to make it a perfect three-for-three before heading home when they played the Stars in Dallas. However, the high scoring Habs didn’t have the same energy as they fell 4-1.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens make massive comeback to defeat Golden Knights

Still, they can be credited with a successful road trip, taking four of a possible six points.

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There’s been a lot of concern about the defence of the Habs this season, and rightfully so, but they’ve tightened up considerably in the last week. Certainly, it was interesting to see Tyler Seguin on a breakaway – seemingly on his way to a dangerous chance on Carey Price – only to be caught by Shea Weber. Seguin was just about to fire off his shot and suddenly Weber was there to get a stick in to stop the opportunity.

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Weber is recovering from major knee surgery and it could be argued that he isn’t completely healed, lacking in his first stride, but there were no issues making up ground on the talented Seguin.

Weber’s improved play is all part of a Habs team that is lowering its goals-against and helping to improve the save percentage of Price.

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There were more examples of the tremendous vision of Nick Suzuki in Dallas. He had an opportunity on the rush, then smartly delayed while he tried to improve his looks. Finally, he beautifully found the trailer Brendan Gallagher who rang a clean shot off the post.

Suzuki has so much intelligence for a rookie playing his first quarter of professional hockey — it really is surprising how much he is impressing, not in points necessarily, but in hockey sense. He has a readiness to his game at the NHL level – a maturity – that didn’t seem possible this early.

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He, in an odd way, is this year’s Jesperi Kotkaniemi. We were all saying the same thing about the Finn last season at this time amazed at his vision and wisdom. The Habs have a winner in both of these players. Some are down over Kotkaniemi, but it must be remembered that he is 19. Also remember that Suzuki is only 20. These two players are just getting started. For example, Jonathan Drouin is still finding his best game in his mid-twenties. These kids have the goods. They will deliver. Bright futures are in front of both of them.

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It’s sad to contemplate why Paul Byron is not the same player this season. No one wants to believe that it is a result of a concussion suffered in a stupid and needless fight where Byron answered to the ridiculous code that he had to engage with his fists in a sure loss against a bigger man, who indeed did pummel him.

It’s difficult to know why Byron is struggling so badly. He has not scored a goal. He does not look fast. He does not get breakaways anymore — he does not even get chances. He doesn’t seem to be doing much at all. It’s easier to ignore this, not talk about it, and just wait for the change, but it’s almost a quarter of season now, and Byron is not finding his game.

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If it is the concussion suffered and its after-effects that have made the old-Byron disappear, then this poor play is likely the fear factor. He could be afraid of suffering another concussion. It’s highly unlikely that the concussion has caused a loss of speed, but perhaps it has led to a loss of aggression. It’s difficult to know what has happened here, and even the conjecture somehow feels unfair, but something is wrong with Byron. Let’s hope Byron figures it out because what a terrible shame if the ‘hockey code’ caused so much damage to such a great hockey player.

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It was a night where special teams made the difference. The Habs power play went zero for five. It happens.

Montreal has been good with the extra man advantage this season, but some nights it just does not come together. There is no need to over-analyze a tough night when overall it is going well, however, it’s fair to lament that penalty kill again.

There were two power play goals for the Stars. The Habs sit at third-worst in the NHL on the penalty kill at a 69 per cent success rate. Contrast that to the best in the league which is the San Jose Sharks at 91 per cent.

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If the Habs are to make the playoffs, Price has to get back up to the .925 save percentage range, but how is he going to possibly accomplish that when the quality of shot he faces killing penalties is so difficult. It’s probably the number one issue on the entire team right now, and it has to change soon.

Montreal is 7-5-1 and considering the level of competition that is acceptable, but it could be so much better, if they could stop allowing more than a goal against per game killing penalties.

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It’s time to extol the virtues of Cayden Primeau — the 20-year-old goaltender already among one of Trevor Timmins best picks in the last five years. The success rate of a seventh round selection is essentially just higher than zero per cent. Out of 31 picks, some years there is one NHL regular from the seventh round, and some years there is no one at all that makes it to the show and stays there. To find someone who can be a star around the 200th pick is nearly impossible. This is likely what Trevor Timmins has done in Primeau. He’s pulled off a miracle at choice 199 it seems.

Primeau, after two outstanding seasons of college hockey at Northeastern, has moved on to the pro ranks where the thought was he would get his legs under him for a couple of seasons –or three– in the minors. Instead, Primeau is dominating the AHL. It’s only six starts for the Laval Rocket, but Primeau has four wins and two losses. His goals-against average is 1.80 and his save percentage is a ridiculous .941. On Friday night, Laval won thanks to Primeau who made excellent saves in overtime then stopped all three shots in the shootout.

By comparison, Carey Price had a very limited run in the AHL. He led the Hamilton Bulldogs to their only championship with a GAA of 2.06 and a save percentage of .936, winning the MVP award. He played only 12 other AHL games. Price was a first round draft choice, though he was taken 5th overall.

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Perhaps the better comparison for what Primeau is doing is right in front of us in Charlie Lindgren. He was highly touted as well for Montreal, coming out of Saint Cloud State in Minnesota, but Lindgren as a pro is now in his fourth season with modest numbers at best. His save percentages are .914, .886, .884 and this season .895. Primeau and Lindgren are in different leagues.

Let’s look at Zach Fucale who was also highly touted. Fucale’s best number in the AHL was .903, but he was so suspect overall that he has spent just as much time in the ECHL. Primeau is in a different league in this comparison too.

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Here is the only caveat — the sample size is small. Primeau’s numbers are amazing, but the sample size can not be ignored because perhaps these sharp-shooting pros will find a hole in Primeau’s game, much like the major league pitcher often finds a hole in the new AAA hot man who tries it in ‘the bigs’. When the major league pitcher realizes the new guy can’t hit the slider, then the new guy only gets the slider. We will see if Primeau has a hole in his game that can be exploited, but for now it looks like he does not. He has the size. He has the tracking ability. He has the reflexes. He has the mental fortitude. It looks like he has the goods overall to be the heir-apparent to Carey Price, when that time finally comes. He is that impressive the last three seasons.

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