After a long five-month hiatus, the Habs were back on the ice for their first preseason contest on Monday night against New Jersey. Claude Julien opted to dress many veterans as Jonathan Drouin, Max Domi, Artturi Lehkonen, Charles Hudon, Jordan Weal, Nick Cousins, Nate Thompson, Dale Weise, Victor Mete, Shea Weber, Brett Kulak, and Carey Price were all in uniform. They were surrounded with Xavier Ouellet, Phil Varone, Riley Barber, Cayden Primeau, Josh Brook, Cale Fleury, Jake Evans, and Nick Suzuki. The last five named were of specific interest for many fans. The results were mixed as the youth was expectedly lacking in consistency as the Devils dominated large portions of the game, but the Habs did find a way to escape with a victory by a 4-2 score.
The Canadiens came out strong and spent the better portion of the opening period in the offensive zone. Only two minutes into the contest, the Habs controlled the puck off an offensive zone faceoff. The puck made its way to Weber for a vintage one-timer that Lehkonen tipped home to open the scoring, a positive sign for Lehkonen who is looking to break out this season.
Just before the midway point of the period, Fleury rushed to the neutral zone and found a streaking Cousins who created a rebound for Thompson to extend the lead. The Habs spent the second half of the period in the penalty box and were scored on once when Will Butcher completed a solo effort to beat Price. While Brook and Fleury really stood out positively for the Habs in the first period, Suzuki looked to be a step behind the play even if his puck control and hockey IQ was quite noticeable.
The second period saw the young Habs fall back on their heels and depend on their goaltending. Brook, who had a very good first period, was hit hard by John Hayden and became tentative afterwards. Suzuki improved on his first period performance as he created some chances for himself and his linemates, but his lack of foot speed continued to draw attention.
The bright spot of the period was without a doubt Cayden Primeau who made a highlight-reel sliding stop for his first save at the midway point and continued to look solid, especially in rebound control, over the course of this ten-minute segment. The Devils did score on Primeau, but the goal was quickly disallowed as Nathan Bastian was called for goaltender interference. The Devils had a 7-5 shot advantage and were the better of the two teams in the second.
Evan Cormier replaced Mackenzie Blackwood to start the third period. Only two minutes into the period, Primeau came out to play a dump-in only to see the puck hit the stanchion and find itself in the slot. Michael McLeod found himself with the puck and an empty net to tie the contest.
Minutes later, Dale Weise offered an excellent penalty killing shift which was also aided with another big save by Primeau who showed nice poise in bouncing back after the unfortunate goal. After the penalty, Brook joined the rush and created some positive momentum for the Habs. This did not last as the teams started to take penalties.
With Domi taking a penalty while Montreal was on the man advantage, it eventually sent the Habs back to the PK with under three minutes to play, Evans made a great defensive play which translated to a partial break that he took full advantage of with a precise shot that beat Cormier to give the Habs a late lead. Cousins would seal the game with an empty-net goal in the final minute as he also got rewarded for a strong defensive play.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Nick Cousins
The entire line of Cousins-Thompson-Weise was excellent in this contest. Cousins managed to be the offensive catalyst on the line so he gets the nod for the top star. Not a terrible way to start his Montreal Canadiens career. He was involved defensively all night long and proved that he can be opportunistic when the scoring chances present themselves. It will be interesting to see if he keeps up when the pace of the game accelerates.
Stats: 1 goal, 1 assist, +1, 4 shots, 2 hits, 13:03 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Cale Fleury
The young sophomore whose stock rose meteorically through the organization last season continued to impress as he had an excellent first game with the big club. With both Noah Juulsen and Karl Alzner battling injuries, Fleury and Brook become Christian Folin’s biggest rivals for spots as the team’s sixth and seventh defenders. A good first impression by Fleury tonight as he was calm and collected in almost all situations. Fleury is not as flashy as Brook but was more consistent.
Stats: 1 assist, 0 (+/-), 1 shot, 4 hits, 19:02 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Cayden Primeau
Keeping in line with players who succeeded in their Habs’ debut, the imposing Primeau was perhaps the best. Not only did he complete some excellent saves, his rebound control was near-perfect. If this performance is the norm for Primeau, it is likely that Charlie Lindgren and Michael McNiven don’t have much of a future with the franchise. What a performance. 60 minutes at the pace of his 30 on this night would have surely deserved the first star.
Stats: 16 saves, 17 shots, .941 sv %, 2.00 G.A.A, 29:52 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Josh Brook
Though inconsistent throughout the contest, Brook showed flashes of what could be in this one. With the mentioned opening on the blueline due to injury, Brook definitely needs to find regularity to secure some playing time, but his potential seems to hold the highest ceiling of the blueline prospects, so if he can gain that confidence quickly, it will be interesting to see what management decides to do.
Stats: 0 points, 0 (+/-), 0 shot, 18:13 T.O.I.