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Canadiens put on show for fans at Red vs. White scrimmage

Hockey-starved capacity crowd takes in annual charity game at Bell Centre

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- Jesperi Kotkaniemi shifted this way then that at Bell Centre on Sunday, finally deciding on a cute backhand, his penalty shot attempt perishing on the stick of Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price.

A few minutes later, Kotkaniemi, playing for Team Red, stood at center ice for another penalty shot in Canadiens' annual Red vs. White scrimmage, freebies awarded in lieu of a penalized opponent serving two minutes.

This time, the 19-year-old forward ripped a shot from the hashmarks, between the face-off circles, to score stick side on Team White's Price, who didn't exactly overexert himself.

In the locker room, with a guilty smile, Kotkaniemi cleared his conscience.

"Did you see me talk with him before the second one?" he said of his quick goal-crease chat with Price before his second shot. "I told him, 'Give me one, please?'

"I was a little frustrated," Kotkaniemi said of his miss, laughing as he described his rare windup on a penalty shot. "It doesn't work too often, but I think it was my only option. I think [Price] just gave me that one, but I'm happy he did."

It was a happy ending for Kotkaniemi, and a sigh of relief for Canadiens management and coaches, who watched him crash awkwardly into the end boards in a chase for the puck with defenseman Shea Weber moments before.

"I'm good," he said, grinning again. "A warrior."

The Reds defeated the Whites 5-4. Forward Paul Byron scored the only goal in a shootout on goalie Cayden Primeau. Keith Kinkaid made saves against forwards Charles Hudon, Jonathan Drouin and Jordan Weal at the other end.

For Byron, it was a successful finish to his third breakaway. He earlier missed a penalty shot, then a clear break, before finally scoring against Primeau.

Other goal-scorers for the Reds were forward Alex Belzile, and defensemen Mike Reilly and Jeff Petry. Forwards Max Domi, Nate Thompson and Weal, and defenseman Josh Brook scored for the Whites.

The Canadiens announced a Bell Centre sell-out of nearly 21,000 for their seventh annual matinée scrimmage. If there were some empty seats, the arena was generously full with fans who for a $5 ticket were treated to a hot dog, bag of chips, soft drink and two 30-minute periods of hockey, followed by a five-minute 3-on-3 and the crowd-pleasing shootout to decide the 43-player game.

Proceeds from the day were earmarked for the Montreal Canadiens Children's Foundation, whose coffers were stuffed with $523,000 on Monday at the team's annual curtain-raising charity golf tournament.

It was 60 degrees when fans began an early flow to Bell Centre. The Canadiens offered tours of the arena from 8-10 a.m., with a sunny tailgate party from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. that featured an autograph signing and a question-and-answer with Canadiens alumni Steve Bégin and Chris Nilan, face-painting, table- and bubble-hockey games, and a giant inflatable for children.

The scrimmage was followed outside by a half-hour Q & A with Canadiens forwards Brendan Gallagher and Phillip Danault, associate coach Kirk Muller and assistant coach Dominique Ducharme.

"With all the fans here, it definitely gives you something to look forward to," said Kinkaid, who signed with the Canadiens as a free agent on July 1 to back up Price. "It shows their passion, the craziness about hockey. It's awesome. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else now."

Indeed, this is a fan base that loves the fact that 2020 will be a leap year, providing a 366th calendar day to worship its team.

"That's why the Bell Centre is a special place to play," said defenseman Ben Chiarot, who signed a three-year contract July 4. "A training-camp scrimmage when you get 20,000 people going crazy, it's why it's a special city to play. It's what I expected. Skating around in the warm-ups, I was thinking, 'This feels like a real game, like a regular-season game,' which is perfect for training camp."

It was Chiarot's first time in the Canadiens' locker room, which drips with history of championship team plaques, trophy winners and portraits of every Hall of Fame player.

"For more than 100 years, guys have worn this jersey, that's what's special about it," he said. "You see the names and the faces on the wall, the guys who have played in this city. It's a rich tradition and something you have to take seriously when you put the jersey on.

"It's like a who's-who of the Hall of Fame up there," Chiarot said, motioning to the gallery of portraits facing him. "As a player, those are guys you looked up [to]. Being a younger guy, I see Chris Chelios and Mark Recchi, guys I watched growing up. The names up there are legends of the game. It's pretty cool to be in this room."

The Canadiens begin their preseason schedule Monday against the New Jersey Devils at Bell Centre (7 p.m. ET; TSN2, RDS). It then continues with a trip to New Brunswick for their Kraft Hockeyville game Wednesday against the Florida Panthers, their opponent back in Montreal on Thursday.

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