MONTREAL — Alexis Lafreniere, a local French-Canadian guy playing at Bell Centre for the first time as an NHL player, was a popular interview at the morning skate Saturday. And yes, he was excited.
"It’s been a little bit of waiting, but I’m really ready for tonight and I’ve been waiting for this moment for a little bit now,’’ he said. "It’s going to be unreal. And I’m really excited to play.’’
He had no idea how unreal it would be. Lafreniere scored what proved to be the winning goal in the Rangers’ 3-1 victory over the Canadiens.
Lafreniere, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft and a native of St. Eustache, Quebec, a Montreal suburb, didn’t get a chance to play at his hometown rink during his rookie season. The NHL played a COVID-19-shortened 56-game season in 2020-21, with teams playing only within their divisions. The Rangers were in the East Division and Montreal was in the North Division, an all-Canadian grouping.
But with the league going back to a full 82-game schedule this season, the Rangers will play all of the other 31 teams in the league, home and away. Saturday was their only trip to Montreal.
Lafreniere did not get to play in front of his family last season, as they were unable to come to New York to watch him. They got a chance to see him play Saturday.
"To come here as a kid and now to be a player here, it’s pretty special,’’ Lafreniere said. "And I look forward to play in front of my family, my friends. And I’m really excited for tonight, for sure.’’
Forward Sammy Blais, who missed Thursday’s game with a lower-body injury, returned to the lineup . . . With Ryan Strome (COVID-19 protocol) unavailable, Filip Chytil took his second-line spot between Artemi Panarin and Kaapo Kakko. Kakko moved up from the second power-play unit to take Strome’s spot on the first unit and the second unit operated with two defensemen, Jacob Trouba and rookie Nils Lundkvist.