MONTREAL — Alexis Lafreniere pointed up to the rafters of the Bell Centre, where he had attended games throughout his Quebec childhood. He had a wide-open smile after he had buried the puck on a two-on-one rush with Mika Zibanejad to regain the lead for the Rangers in the third period Saturday night against the Canadiens.
His teammates on the ice gave the 20-year-old an extended celebratory hug, while his family — watching Lafreniere compete in an NHL game in Canada for the first time — bounced around in their third-floor box.
Lafreniere’s go-ahead goal at 9:50 of the third period proved to be the game-winner as the Rangers took a 3-1 victory over the Canadiens in front of the first full house at Bell Centre since before the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s been a little bit of waiting,” Lafreniere said before the puck drop, referring to the fact he couldn’t play in Canada amid the NHL’s division realignment last season.
Chris Kreider opened the scoring for the Rangers with a second-period power-play goal and Kevin Rooney added an empty-net goal with seconds left in regulation.
The Rangers had a strong night defensively, backed by an impressive performance from goalie Igor Shesterkin, who finished with 31 saves. Structurally, the Rangers were sound and aggressive with their poke checks.
After starting the night already playing without one of their top-six forwards because Ryan Strome was in COVID-19 protocol, the Rangers lost another after Kaapo Kakko sustained an undisclosed upper-body injury during the first period.
Sammy Blais was back in the lineup after missing the Rangers’ home opener against the Stars on Thursday with an undisclosed lower-body injury. He skated on the third line next to Barclay Goodrow and Greg McKegg, who was recalled from Hartford to replace Strome.
Following a quiet first period, during which Montreal registered the lone high-danger chance, the Rangers were awarded three straight power plays through the first 9:04 of the second as the Canadiens repeatedly committed undisciplined penalties.
Without Strome or Kakko available, the Rangers’ power-play units were a bit jumbled, with the likes of Dryden Hunt getting significant ice time with the man-advantage. The Rangers, however, capitalized on their third man-advantage opportunity when Kreider took a feed from Zibanejad and put it past Canadiens netminder Jake Allen at 9:59 of the second period.
Jonathan Drouin scored at 9:24 of the third period to tie the score before Lafreniere netted his goal 26 seconds later.