Before the game, the talk was about Jesperi Kotkaniemi, an offer sheet, the Carolina Hurricanes and how Montreal Canadiens fans would greet their former player Thursday.
"He knows all the eyes will be on him," Canes coach Rod Brind'Amour said.
There was the not-so-small matter of playing the hockey game. The Canes were 2-0 and itching to play again, and the Canadiens 0-4 and desperate to notch a first win this season.
Kotkaniemi, in his return game to the Bell Centre, did his part and made himself a big part of the story as the Canes took a 4-1 road victory.
Widely booed when he first took the ice in the first period, the forward had Montreal fans booing again in the third when he redirected a Brady Skjei shot for his first goal with Carolina. That gave the Canes a 3-1 lead at 9:23 of the period and had Kotkaniemi and everyone on the Canes bench smiling.
Sebastian Aho scored twice, his first two goals of the season, and Andrei Svechnikov continued to sizzle with his fourth in three games. Goalie Frederik Andersen won for a third time, making 27 saves, and the Canes killed off five of six penalties.
After a scoreless first period, the Canes struck swiftly in the second. Aho and Svechnikov — No. 37, again — both scored in the first 2:12 of the period, Aho converting on a power play that began late in the first period and then Svechnikov at even strength.
Aho's first goal of the season came on Teuvo Teravainen's cross-ice pass into Aho's wheelhouse. Svechnikov went top shelf from the right side after a setup pass from Martin Necas.
Jordan Staal nearly made it 3-0, Canes, with a strong shorthanded chance in the second but the Habs then raced down ice and scored on the power play. Tyler Toffoli got position in front of the net for his first of the season — the first for the Habs and the first allowed by the Canes this season after 11 straight kills.
Andersen made a key stop with five minutes left in regulation on Jonathan Drouin, then denied Cole Caufield and Brendan Gallagher a minute later around the crease to maintain the 3-1 lead.
The Canes took Kotkaniemi, 21, away from the Canadiens by making a one-year, $6.1 million offer sheet to a player who was a restricted free agent. The Canadiens, with salary-cap concerns, did not match the offer sheet, instead taking first-and third-round picks in the 2022 NHL Draft from Carolina and later trading for center Christian Dvorak.
Brind'Amour had Kotkaniemi on Aho's line with Teravainen to start Thursday's game. That put the three Finns together for the first time in a game, all the better for communication, and also to possibly boost Kotkaniemi's comfort level in this game.
"He was good,
The Canadiens believed they had scored the game's first goal on a power play when Brendan Gallagher redirected a shot at 5:33 of the first. But Brind'Amour won a coach's challenge for goaltender interference by Gallagher, who was in the crease, and the goal was disallowed. More boos.
Kotkaniemi said he quickly eyed the schedule after coming to Carolina and saw the Canes had an early trip to Montreal. He also quipped that he has been so concerned about the game in recent days that he headed out on golf courses with Teravainen.
One concern: Kotkanimei has been adjusting to playing a wing after spending much of his three years with Montreal at center. His minutes were limited in the first two games — he averaged about 12 minutes in ice time in wins over the New York Islanders and Nashville Predators. It hasn't all been smooth.
"On the ice, you can see he has potential," Aho said before the game. "Big body, big long reach, stuff like that. Just a matter of time before he gets more comfortable with our system, obviously playing as a winger.
"It takes some time. It could be tonight or next game but it's going to happen eventually. I went through that. I was a winger before playing center. For sure it takes a little time but I'm sure he'll figure it out pretty soon."(c)2021 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.