TORONTO — Jesperi Kotkaniemi continues to make life difficult for the Montreal Canadiens — in a good way.
The rookie centre put up another solid performance in his bid to make the team as the Canadiens defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-1 in Monday’s pre-season tilt that featured little in the way of established NHL-level talent.
The No. 3 pick at June’s NHL draft had an assist on the Canadiens’ first goal, created a screen on their third and was solid at both ends of the ice, finishing with a plus-3 rating and an even-strength shot differential of 52 per cent at 5 on 5.
No bad for a player that only turned 18 on July 6.
"Jesperi’s been good," Montreal head coach Claude Julien said. "He’s gotten better everyday.
"We’re really pleased with his training camp so far."
Playing in a team-high fourth game of the exhibition schedule, Kotkaniemi could make Montreal’s roster for opening night, get sent to the American Hockey League or be returned to his native Finland for more grooming with his hometown team.
"We have some big decisions," Julien added. "There’s no doubt we need to have a really good look."
The soft-spoke Kotkaniemi only smiled when asked if he was aware that his play was making the decision a tough one.
"I’m just trying to do my best everyday," said the native of Pori, who now has a goal and an assist in pre-season. "My goal is to make the team. I’m trying to get there."
Xavier Ouellet and Artturi Lehkonen each scored twice for Montreal, while Charles Hudon had the other goal for the visitors.
Antti Niemi made 29 stops for the Canadiens, who picked up their fourth victory in five pre-season outings. Joel Armia added two assists.
Kasperi Kapanen replied for Toronto as the Leafs lost for the first time in five exhibition games. Garret Sparks got the start for Toronto, allowing five goals on 36 shots. Sparks is in a battle with Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard to be Frederik Andersen’s backup, but did little to help his cause until it was too late.
With the likes of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Patrick Marleau and Nazem Kadri sitting out the game at Scotiabank Arena, the Leafs’ projected fourth line of Kapanen, Par Lindholm and Andreas Johnsson was given top billing.
Montreal, meanwhile, left Carey Price, Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin and Tomas Tatar at home.
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock saw the game as an opportunity lost for his players sitting precariously on the roster bubble.
"What I wanted to see, I didn’t see any of it," he said. "You were hoping someone grabs hold of something (and) just makes it so obvious you don’t have any decisions to make."
The Canadiens opened the scoring at 10:17 of the first period when Kotkaniemi took a shot that went off Leafs defenceman Andreas Borgman and right to Lehkonen, who scored his second goal of the pre-season into an wide-open net.
Montreal then went ahead 2-0 at 12:38 when Ouellet’s shot from the point found its way through a partial screen to beat Sparks between his arm and body for the defenceman’s first.
Babcock challenged the play for goalie interference, but the call on the ice stood after video review.
Kapanen got the Leafs on the board 34 seconds into the second when his deflected shot looped up and over a down-and-out Niemi, but Ouellet scored again at 4:28 with the six-foot-two, 184-pound Kotkaniemi providing traffic in front.
"He goes to all the (hard) areas," Julien said of the Finn. "He’s not afraid to get his nose dirty."
Hudon made it 4-1 just 1:26 later when he turned Borgman around off the rush and beat Sparks for his second goal of September.
Sparks then saw his clearing attempt from behind the net get intercepted by Matthew Peca, who fed Lehkonen in front his second of the evening with 5:03 left in the period.
"A couple tough bounces," Sparks said. "I just try to hang in there and keep competing and keep battling and show that I wasn’t going to get walked over."
The Leafs had a 5-on-3 power play for 1:12 late in the period, but couldn’t get anything going against Niemi, who is once again tabbed to be Price’s No. 2.
Sparks was grateful for the opportunity to come back out for the third, and rebounded with a couple of nice stops in a scoreless period — something he hopes to take as a positive.
"The guy that’s looking to get pulled isn’t the guy that you want on your team," Sparks said. "You want the guy that’s going to go out for the third period and do everything that you can even when things don’t look too hot."
Notes: Montreal hosts Toronto on Wednesday in another exhibition matchup at the Bell Centre. … The Leafs and Canadiens open the regular season Oct. 3 at Scotiabank Arena.