MONTREAL — Oh to be young and fearless.
That’s what these Montreal Canadiens have going for them in the early part of this season, over which they’ve built up a 7-3-2 record in stunning fashion. That’s what they showed in beating the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals 6-4 at the Bell Centre on Thursday.
And if there is a player on their side who best embodies their brashness, it is Jesperi Kotkaniemi. He is the youngest player in the NHL, and with his perma-smile and persistent work ethic, he is this team’s spirit animal.
He’s having a blast — and so are they.
On Thursday, Kotkaniemi, at 18 years and 118 days old, scored the first goal of his career. A rising wrister, taken from a sharp angle, that found its way through the only chink in Braden Holtby’s armour and clanked off the back bar just 2:28 into the game.
Later on, Kotkaniemi darted to the middle of the slot and parked himself in front of Holtby to receive a pass from Artturi Lehkonen that he ended up shoveling into the net with 3:04 remaining to knot things up at 4-4.
The crowd went berserk, the kid flashed his chops, and the Canadiens, in their defiance, capitalized on momentum and set an NHL record with the winning and insurance goals coming off Max Domi and Joel Armia’s sticks within two seconds of each other.
“Super fun,” said Kotkaniemi after he took his curtain call as the game’s first star and met with the media wearing the player-of-the-game, Game-of-Thrones-inspired cape the Canadiens hand out after wins.
You can’t deny it.
This Montreal team, which wasn’t worth the price of admission on most nights last season, is offering an entertaining product on a nightly basis this year. Even when they lose.
It looked like the Canadiens were headed in that direction in this one, despite their best efforts. They had taken a 3-1 lead 3:06 into the second period and squandered it before 13 minutes of the frame were up. Goals from Alex Ovechkin, and a second of the night for Lars Eller gave Washington a 4-3 edge, and the Canadiens were left scrambling to tie things up.
“We should have been winning, but we made things hard on ourselves,” said Canadiens forward Tomas Tatar, who assisted on the two goals Brendan Gallagher scored. “I was really worried when we caught some bad bounces in the third period.”
Domi was staring down a yawning net on a pass from Charles Hudon and he shot the puck directly into Holtby’s right pad.
Canadiens defenceman Jeff Petry came down the wing seconds later and shot the puck off the post, after which it caromed off of Holtby’s back and narrowly missed the net.
“We just kept pushing,” said Tatar.
That’s the thing about these Canadiens, who are the second-youngest team in the NHL — they don’t give up, and they won’t be intimidated, either.
They’ve shown that a lot since the puck dropped on their season, and so has Kotkaniemi.
He may be 6-foot-2, but he’s 185 pounds at most. His smarts and his skills have allowed him to avoid the type of physicality that could have knocked him back to Finland by now.
“He needs to get stronger,” said Canadiens centre Phillip Danault. “But he’s not afraid and he isn’t backing down at all.”
It’s why when the question was asked a week ago about whether or not the Canadiens would allow the third overall pick at the 2018 NHL Draft to play in a 10th game and trigger the beginning of his entry-level contract, coach Claude Julien said it wasn’t even up for discussion.
“I think everybody sees the talent that he has,” said Julien after Thursday’s game. “They see the potential that he has. Right now, I can tell you he’s never looked out of place since Day 1 [of training camp]. Like everybody, he’s had better games than others, but [he’s] never looked out of place. And we have to take into consideration that he’s an 18-year-old and we have to have some patience with him at certain times of the game, maybe certain games and that kind of stuff. But he hasn’t disappointed at all.
“I like the way that he’s been playing. It’s nice that he’s finally scored some goals because he’s had some good chances before tonight and he’s a dangerous weapon. Even on the power play, he’ll find seams that not too many players can do and he’s got that ability. So there’s a lot of reasons to like him and to keep here with us right now.”
Maybe the main one is the kid’s attitude, which appears to be rubbing off on his teammates so far.
“I think his confidence is really something,” said Domi. “A lot of the times you see an 18-year-old come in, they’re very reserved and quiet and don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. This kid is extremely respectful and he works hard, but he also knows how good he is. That’s what you need to be an elite player, and he’s going to be an elite player for a long, long time in this league and for this team.”