Max Domi’s sucker punch offers bad first impression with Canadiens

Watch as Max Domi drops Aaron Ekblad with a couple shots to the face, even though the Panthers star clearly didn’t want to fight.

MONTREAL — This can’t be the impression Max Domi was looking to make in his first game as a Montreal Canadien, and it might be a while before he gets a chance to make another one.

The NHL’s department of player safety will assess just how long it will be before Domi dresses again for Montreal. You have to think chances are good they’ll be suspending him for his punch on Florida Panthers defenceman Aaron Ekblad in the Canadiens’ 5-2 loss at the Bell Centre Wednesday.

They would be well in the right to do so.

It was just under a minute into the third period, with the Canadiens trailing by a goal and on the power play, when Domi got tangled up with Ekblad near the Zamboni entrance. The play was whistled dead and that’s when Domi tried to goad Ekblad into a fight. The Panthers defenceman wasn’t taking the bait, standing passively as Domi took a couple of gloved shots at him, and he was unquestionably caught by surprise when Domi shook off his right glove and punched him barehanded, dropping him to the ice in a heap as he bled heavily from his nose.

That’s how both players’ nights ended.

“From what I saw, and I haven’t looked at it closely, I think Ekblad gave him a slash in the back of the leg in the corner, they scuffled a bit and I think we see the rest,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien afterwards. “At a certain point, these things happen in a game.”

And they often lead to supplementary discipline being handed out to the offending player.

Perhaps in Domi’s case it won’t be as severe as it could be. Panthers coach Bob Boughner told reporters after the game that Ekblad was forced into concussion protocol by league officials but passed all his tests. He also mentioned that Ekblad didn’t sustain any fractures or other injuries on the play, which might enable Domi to escape a heavier suspension.

Domi’s suspension history could also factor into the decision, but it’s relatively clean with the exception of an automatic one-game suspension handed to him in March of 2016 for instigating a fight with less than five minutes remaining in a game.

But let’s be clear: There’s no real bright side to this situation for anyone involved.

The 22-year-old Ekblad is Florida’s top defenceman and he’s already had to deal with multiple concussions over his four-year NHL career. The last thing the Panthers wanted to see was him face-down in a puddle of his own blood — especially in a meaningless pre-season game.

And Domi, who wasn’t available for comment after the game, would have surely preferred to have shown off the skills that have seen him collect 135 points in 222 NHL contests. The plucky forward, who was acquired from the Arizona Coyotes in a trade for Alex Galchenyuk back on June 15, was making his Bell Centre debut at centre with his new team, playing in a matchup against an elite pivot in new Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov. In an ideal world, he’d have demonstrated that he could handle that difficult assignment and perhaps pick up a point or two in the process.

But the game started on a bad note for Domi and it only got worse for him as time wore on.

It was just over four minutes into the first period that Domi mishandled a puck that eventually found its way to Panthers forward Evgenii Dadonov and ended up behind Carey Price for a goal. Then, with the Canadiens down 2-1 early in the second period, Domi took an interference penalty that negated a Canadiens power play just 11 seconds after it had begun.

By the time Domi was ejected, just 56 seconds into the third period, he had won only three of nine faceoffs and failed to register a single shot on net in just over 12 minutes of ice time.

When the kid from Winnipeg was dreaming up his first night in a Canadiens uniform, it couldn’t possibly have resembled this. And if he’s forced to sit out for as many as all five of the remaining games on Montreal’s exhibition schedule, it will certainly put a hitch in his process to show what he can do in the middle of the ice.

Any length of absence for Domi also threatens to hinder the chemistry he, Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia are trying to find before meaningful games are played in October. If it does, this bad first impression will be the least of his concerns.

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