Jesperi Kotkaniemi made his return to Montreal a memorable one Thursday, scoring his first goal for Carolina as the Hurricanes topped the Canadiens 4-1.
While the 21-year-old Finnish centre was a fan favourite when he played for the Habs, he proved much less popular in a ‘Canes jersey.
Montreal drafted Kotkaniemi third overall in 2018 and he played three seasons for the Canadiens before signing a US$6.1-million offer sheet with Carolina over the summer.
On Thursday, he was booed every time he touched the ice – let alone the puck.
“I didn’t really know what to expect so I just kept an open mind,” Kotkaniemi said of the crowd’s reaction. “It gets your going a little bit. It was a little funny. I laughed when I stepped on the ice”
Sebastian Aho had two goals and an assist for the ‘Canes (3-0-0), while Andrei Svechnikov also scored. Vincent Trocheck and Teuvo Teravainen each registered a pair of assists.
Tyler Toffoli had the lone goal for the Habs (0-5-0), who’ve lost five straight games to start the season.
Frederik Andersen had 27 saves for Carolina and Jake Allen stopped 29-of-32 shots for Montreal.
Just after the five-minute mark, Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher appeared to tip home Chris Wideman’s point shot on the power play, but the goal was called back for goaltender interference.
Montreal’s power play struggles continued as they couldn’t covert on any of six opportunities with the man advantage. It almost cost them when Kotkaniemi stepped out of the box and was immediately sprung on a breakaway, forcing a great glove stop by Allen.
“That was the game right there. We did a heck of a job there and the killers came up big,” said Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour. “[Andersen] was really good tonight too. That’s the difference in games, but we can’t take all those penalties and then rely on the goalie that much.”
With three minutes left in the opening frame, Kotkaniemi had a chance to give Carolina the lead, but saw his point-blank shot rejected once again by Allen, much to the Bell Centre’s delight.
The second period began with the Hurricanes on the power play and this time they made no mistake when Aho opened the scoring, putting away his first of the season.
Svechnikov doubled Carolina’s lead a minute and a half later with a cheeky finish into the top corner from a tight angle.
“I always like going out there and have fun with the boys and just help my team win games. That’s all I want to do,” said Svechnikov. “Another win for us is important and it gives us more confidence going forward.”
It took another 10 minutes before Montreal showed any signs of life. The Habs finally found the back of the net with two minutes left in the frame when Toffoli smacked home the Canadiens’ first power-play goal of the season.
With 10:37 to go in the third, Kotkaniemi’s return to Montreal was complete as he tipped in a shot from Brady Skjei, restoring Carolina’s two-goal lead.
“It was a really big relief after those first two games,” said Kotkaniemi. “Our line had a pretty solid night so have to keep building on that and take it into the next game.”
The Hurricanes had to stave a late Montreal push to equalize, with Andersen holding firm and denying multiple excellent scoring opportunities throughout the last five minutes.
An empty-net goal from Aho sealed the score at 4-1.
“We’ve only played two games and you could really see the pace,” said Brind’Amour. “You could just see the pace wasn’t there and Montreal did a really good job of taking it to us.”
The Canadiens are back in action Saturday when they host the Detroit Red Wings. Carolina will travel to Columbus to take on the Blue Jackets the same day.