It was awkward, it was scary and it sure looked dirty.
Less than two minutes into Thursday night’s game at the Bell Centre, Colorado Avalanche defenceman Nikita Zadorov checked the Canadiens’ Jesperi Kotkaniemi hard into the boards, brought up his right leg to upend him and then slammed the 19-year-old centre to the ice.
Kotkaniemi’s head hit the ice hard at an awkward angle and he stayed down for a few minutes before being helped to the locker room. It was Kotkaniemi’s first shift and he didn’t return, forcing the Canadiens to play the rest of the game with only 11 forwards, losing 3-2 to the Avalanche.
“I don’t like it and I don’t like it because one of his feet came up and went behind his leg,” Canadiens coach Claude Julien said about the hit during his postgame news conference. “Not the typical slew foot where you slide it right underneath. But his leg went up and he used his upper body to flip him and to me that’s a dirty hit, OK? I don’t know how the league’s going to see it. That’s up to them to look at it. But when I talked to our people — upper management and all that stuff — they seem to think that’s definitely a suspendible move on his part. A guy fell on his head. It’s a dangerous, dangerous, dangerous play on his part.”
No penalty was called on the hit.
Kotkaniemi won’t travel to New York with his teammates for Friday night’s game against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio) .
“He’s not making the trip … that’s all I know,” Julien said. “I don’t have a lot to say about that. You saw how he fell. Both hands were caught inside and he fell on his shoulder and his head. So he’s got an upper-body injury right now that hopefully we’ll clarify in the next day or so.”
Kotkaniemi joins forwards Jonathan Drouin (wrist) and Paul Byron (knee), along with defenceman Victor Mete (ankle) on the Canadiens’ injury list.
Brendan Gallagher and Nick Cousins (power play) scored for the Canadiens, who saw their record drop to 12-11-6, including 7-7-3 at home. The Avalanche improved to 18-8-2.
The Canadiens are now 1-6-3 in their last 10 games.
Primeau makes NHL debut
Canadiens goalie Cayden Primeau made his NHL debut, making 32 saves as the Canadiens outshot the Avalanche 41-35.
Not surprisingly, the 20-year-old admitted he was feeling some nerves at the start.
“Obviously excited and a little bit nervous,” he said after the game. “But yeah, it was good to get the first one under the belt and super motivated and it’s good to see this level during the regular season. There’s a lot of things to take away from this game.”
When asked what was the biggest difference he noticed at the NHL level after playing with the AHL’s Laval Rocket, Primeau said: “That top line (of Nathan MacKinnon between Joonas Donskoi and Mikko Rantanen) is really fast. I mean, their whole team is really fast. But definitely, definitely got some fast guys up front. That’s what I felt was the biggest adjustment.”
Veteran Canadiens centre Nate Thompson was impressed by Primeau.
“He was good,” Thompson said. “He’s calm. I think he’s going to have a really bright future.”
Canadiens defenceman Otto Leskinen also made his NHL debut after getting called up from the Rocket, but only had 7:37 of ice time.
Back-to-back wins for Avs
For the Avalanche, it was their second win in two nights after beating the Maple Leafs 3-1 Wednesday in Toronto. It was also the fifth straight win for the Avalanche, who are 10-3-0 in their last 13 games and have a 10-5-1 record on the road.
“I think they’re a team that can skate, make plays, they got a lot of dangerous guys,” the Canadiens’ Thompson said. “But they play well five-on-five. They don’t give you a lot. They check with their legs. I thought we didn’t get off to a good enough start and they capitalized on some chances. It’s tough when you’re playing against a good team like that playing catchup.”
The Canadiens were losing 3-1 after two periods and then took it to the Avalanche in the third, getting the power-play goal from Cousins at the 1:23 mark and outshooting Colorado 18-7 over the final 20 minutes. Avalanche goalie Pavel Francouz was fantastic in the third period, especially in the final minutes.
“I think it was too little too late,” Thompson said. “I think we had a good pushback. I think you saw it in spurts in the second period and then in the third period I thought we really took over. But we just have to start on time. I just think they capitalized on some chances. When you’re behind a team like that it’s tough to play catchup. We just have to carry that third period into tomorrow.”
Avs’ Makar a special player
Avalanche rookie defenceman Cale Makar logged 21:23 of ice time, picked up an assist, was plus-1 and had five shots on goal.
The 21-year-old now has 8-20-28 totals to lead all rookies in scoring and rank third among defencemen behind Washington’s John Carlson (11-31-42) and Carolina’s Dougie Hamilton (10-18-28). Makar is also plus-10.
“He’s a special player,” the Canadiens’ Thompson said. “He’s one of those guys that he’s elite. You can see it the way he skates, the way he moves the puck. He’s a heckuva player.”
The Avalanche selected Makar in the first round (fourth overall) of the 2017 NHL Draft.
Ben Chiarot led the Canadiens in ice time with 28:54, followed by Shea Weber (25:24), Phillip Danault (24:38) and Jeff Petry (22:44). Weber and Chiarot were both minus-1, while Petry was minus-2.
Joel Armia led the Canadiens in shots (seven) and hits (five). Gallagher had five shots and scored his team-leading 12th goal.
Max Domi went 12-for-15 in the faceoff circle (80 per cent) improving to 46.9 per cent for the season. Danault went 7-for-19 on faceoffs (37 per cent) and is now at 52.7 per cent for the season.
Domi has now gone six games without a goal and has only two in the last 16 — both coming in the same game. He did pick up an assist against the Avalanche and has 6-12-18 totals for the season.
While there were some empty seats at the Bell Centre, the game was officially a sellout with attendance listed at 21,302. It marked the eighth sellout in 17 home games for the Canadiens.
The three stars
The Avalanche’s Matt Calvert was the first star with a goal and an assist. Gallagher was the second star and Avalanche goalie Francouz was the third star after making 39 saves.
The Canadiens headed to New York after the game and will play the Rangers Friday night at Madison Square Garden (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio) before enjoying a rare Saturday off.
Next week, the Canadiens will visit the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio) and then play the Ottawa Senators Wednesday at the Bell Centre (7:30 p.m., SN, RDS, TSN 690 Radio) followed by a visit from the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday (7 p.m., SNE, CITY, TVA Sports, TSN 690 Radio).
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