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Canadiens vs. Capitals game recap: Jesperi Kotkaniemi steals the show in comeback effort

He opened the score and tied if back up again late to announce his arrival to the NHL.

NHL: Washington Capitals at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

The Montreal Canadiens changed their lines up for Thursday’s game versus the Washington Capitals. Paul Byron’s absence had players shuffling around to make new trios as the coaching staff looked to make up for the loss of offensive talent.

The players needed no time to find chemistry with new linemates. Opening shifts saw prime scoring chances for Tomas Tatar and Charles Hudon, but it was a shift from the newly formed Finnish Line of Artturi Lehkonen and Joel Armia flanking Jesperi Kotkaniemi that found the net first.

Entering the zone, Armia’s first attempted pass was blocked, but a second effort got the puck to Kotkaniemi. The rookie continued on down the wing and ripped a shot past Braden Holtby two-and-a-half minutes in, getting a long blast of the goal horn and an even longer ovation from the Bell Centre faithful for the long-awaited tally.

The reaction wasn’t nearly so warm on the next goal, scored by former Canadiens centreman Lars Eller just over six minutes in.

A late flurry from the Finns threatened to put the home side ahead once again, but the chances came to nothing and the teams entered the intermission deadlocked.

The tie didn’t hold long once the second got underway. As it had to begin the game, the Phillip Danault line immediate got into the offensive zone. Tomas Tatar calmly knocked down a floating puck with his hand, got it to his stick, and knew Brendan Gallagher would be right on the end of his pass if he simply laid it to the top the crease. With the work already done to get to the net, Gallagher simply had to tap the puck in to make it a 2-1 game.

Less than three minutes later, the setup came in the same order, but in a different fashion. Tatar and Gallagher broke in similar to how they had earlier, but this time Tatar decided to shoot instead, missing the net short side. But Gallagher raced onto the puck and jammed away at the side of the goal until he had ensured his new teammate had his eighth assist of the year, and himself a ninth goal through just 12 games.

The Canadiens seemed to believe they had the game under control at that point, but the Capitals reminded them why they are annually one of the league’s top offences. It was none other than the very best of the NHL’s goal-scorers who pulled his team back within one. A defensive breakdown at the Canadiens’ blue line allowed the Capitals to generate a two-on-one out of thin air. Evgeny Kuznetsov placed the puck right in Alex Ovechkin’s wheelhouse, and the goal was virtually automatic at that point.

Image credit: Natural Stat Trick

Washington continued to possess the puck and test a Canadiens defence that wasn’t up to the task last night, and the result was a second goal from both Eller and Ovechkin before the period came to a close, turning what was a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 lead.

An uninspiring power play to start the third had the Canadiens looking a bit listless, but they ramped things up as the minutes ticked down. They had several excellent chances to get a game-tying goal, but those shots were either missed, hit a post, or, in Max Domi’s case, fired right into the pads of an out-of-position Holtby.

After so many good looks failing to result in a goal, they finally found a way to tie it up on a more brute-force effort. Victor Mete drove below the goal line in the Washington end to win back possession as the puck went to the stick of Lehkonen in close pursuit. Lehkonen tossed the puck to the front of the net, and Kotkaniemi was there to just get enough on it to get it past Holtby and over the goal line.

The goal gave the entire building life, and Montreal used the energy to press for the winning goal in regulation. It was Domi, gettting redemption for the earlier wayward shot, who broke down on the left wing and fired a shot that hit Holtby’s glove but carried on into the net with under 30 seconds left on the clock.

It wasn’t the last time the crowd got to cheer. Washington sent six skaters to the centre ice dot after taking their timeout, leaving their net empty. Danault poked the puck to Armia off the draw, and the winger hit the net from the red line to seal a 6-4 win. Scored just two seconds after Domi’s go-ahead goal, the two markers proved to be the quickest one team has ever scored in NHL history.

Hot scorers stayed hot and a snakebitten Finnish contingent wrote their names all over the scoresheet. The comeback effort will give the team a lot of confidence to take into their last game of the homestand, when they will have a chance to move ahead of the visiting Tampa Bay Lightning in the Atlantic Division standings.