November 30, 2023

Thursday was the final contest at the Bell Centre before the Montreal Canadiens embark on a five-game road trip, with the Vegas Golden Knights in town. One of Montreal’s best games of the year was against Vegas in Nevada when they fell in a shootout.

The return match-up was equally exciting, with Vegas scoring two goals late on consecutive power plays to win 6-5.

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It’s rare that a game has so much action in the first 10 minutes. A first half of the first period is usually a feeling-out process, but in this one, the first 10 set the tone for the entire contest.

The Golden Knights came out firing, and it appeared the Canadiens were skating in slush. However, one player in red, white and blue was ready, tilted the ice, and essentially made his best attempt to steal the game. The shots on goal early were eight to nothing for Vegas, but Cayden Primeau stopped them all.

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This was the Primeau who won goaltender of the year in college hockey playing for Northeastern. This was the goalie that the Canadiens had been waiting for, and the goalie that they made sure they didn’t allow to go through the waiver wire to be lost for nothing.

For the first time, Primeau looked like he did for the Huskies in Boston. He was still. There was no wasted movement. He attacked the puck with confidence. He had outstanding tracking and lateral movement. The Golden Knights could have been up by four goals. The chances were as golden as their uniforms.

The Canadiens were lifted by Primeau’s effort and then got some outstanding good fortune of their own. The first shot on goal that Adin Hill had to wait seven minutes for went into the net off the stick of Alex Newhook. It was a huge moment for Newhook after going 13 games without a goal — nearly a month between goals.

A short time later, it was Jonathan Kovacevic in the slot as well. He counted on a shot far side that was a lot like Newhook’s shot. Suzuki had assists on both of the goals, while Newhook also had two points.

The Canadiens were dominated in the first period. Vegas outshot Montreal 18-6, yet they trailed 2-0. The attempted shots were 41-12 in the first frame for Vegas.

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Hockey can be unfair. Just call the sport ‘goaltender’ because on some nights it feels like the goalie is everything. However, if a team keeps persisting and keeps dominating, fairness comes back into the mix. Vegas was relentless. They came back to tie the contest at four. They should have had 10.

They didn’t count on Jesse Ylonen, though, who scored twice. The first was gorgeous. He threaded it through the last defender to rush on a breakaway that he created. The shot was impressive, lifting it just under the bar from in close. Still in the second, it was Ylonen again with the quick shot on a Michael Pezzetta pass from behind the net.

It was a wild affair at the Bell Centre. Jack Eichel and Mark Stone scored late on a four-minute power play due to a Brendan Gallagher high stick. Vegas led 6-4, but then Justin Barron scored with the goalie pulled to make this a wild ending.

Vegas won it 6-5, but it was a night that Primeau and Ylonen should look at as perhaps breakthrough nights. They were outstanding.

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Cole Caufield is taking more shots than he ever has in his short NHL career. He has averaged around three shots per game in his previous seasons. His output this season is even better at four shots per game. Caufield is top 10 in shots in the entire NHL.

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However, something unusual is happening with his finish. In Caufield’s short first season, his shooting percentage was 13. He followed that with 12 per cent. Last season, in half a year before he needed shoulder surgery, Caufield had a shooting percentage of 16.

A percentage of 16 is high, and for most players, it’s an unsustainable number. In fact, for most players, 16 is a number that can never be achieved even for a short period of time. Caufield has an elite shot though, so somewhere between 12 to 16 is certainly an attainable number for his career. A percentage of 10 for a season would be somewhat disappointing for Caufield, considering his powerful and accurate shot.

This is why Caufield’s number of 7.7 per cent is so shocking this season. He is shooting poorly, or he is meeting outstanding goaltending. Truth is, though, ‘goaltenders have been outstanding’ is, in the long run, just another way to say someone is shooting poorly.

Great shooters take great shots, and for some reason, Caufield is not taking great shots. There’s no way to know if the shoulder is right after shoulder surgery. He certainly would not tell anyone, if it were not.

Note where the shooting percentage goes from here. Right now, it does not look like Caufield is going to finally break that 40-goal barrier this season. The last time that a Canadiens player had a 40-goal season was 1994 when Vincent Damphousse scored exactly 40.

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One other sad moment of note: Arber Xhekaj took a big hit in the second period and fell on his left shoulder. He went to the bench and felt for pain inside the shoulder blade on the left side. He left about five seconds, never to return. That could be a serious injury.

His season ended last year early due to a right shoulder injury, so this is not a chronic problem to the same shoulder, but a new issue.

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The Kitchener Rangers are the early favourite to win the Memorial Cup. They are an absolute machine on offence this season. The Rangers have the top three scorers in the Ontario Hockey League and four of the top six.

They’ve taken off even more since adding Canadiens first-round draft pick Filip Mesar. Mesar has joined the leading scorer in the league, Seattle Kraken draft pick Carson Rehkopf, on the Rangers top line along with Trent Swick.

Rehkopf has an outstanding 33 points in 19 games, but the man who is on fire even more is Mesar.

Mesar is scoring at a nearly two points-per-game clip. He has finally found a home for his talents and some chemistry in North America after needing some time to adapt to the smaller ice. Mesar has 15 points in eight games. This is likely an unsustainable pace, but what excitement for Montreal fans that he’s found the game that made the Canadiens draft him.

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The Rangers fight for a Memorial Cup berth could be with the Peterborough Petes who actually have the best record in the OHL, though it is early. The Petes play a more refined game with more attention to defence and detail. Canadiens pick Owen Beck is arguably their top player with 15 points in 15 games.

With both Peterborough and Kitchener potentially going deep into the playoffs, it could be an exciting spring for Canadiens fans even if Montreal doesn’t make the playoffs.

Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on after each Canadiens game.

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