Slafkovsky fulfills dream in NHL debut with Canadiens

MONTREAL — Juraj Slafkovsky said he still had goose bumps 20 minutes after his Montreal Canadiens defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3 in the season opener for each team at Bell Centre on Wednesday.

He had good reason to feel that way.

“It’s hard to believe,” the 18-year-old forward said, grinning from ear to ear. “My first NHL game. Playing against Auston Matthews, one of my favorite players I grew up watching. And beating the Maple Leafs, a team we wanted to beat so bad. I loved it at the beginning of the game when the fans booed them when they first came on the ice.

“I dreamed of playing in the NHL one day, and now it happened. And to win the way we did, right at the end, to beat that team, it couldn’t have gone better.”

To be fair, the only thing that kept Slafkovsky’s NHL debut from being a true Cinderella story would have been scoring his first NHL goal or registering his first point. That, he said, will come.

In the end, the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NHL Draft played 14 shifts that covered 10:34 of ice time. He had one hit, one shot on goal, one giveaway, one takeaway and one blocked shot. Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said he would have liked to get Slafkovsky on the ice more, but the nine combined penalties taken by the teams meant his playing time was limited because of the reliance on special teams play.

That won’t dampen the spirits of Slafkovsky’s legions of fans, both in Montreal and back home in his native Slovakia.

Slafkovsky became the highest Slovak ever chosen when the Canadiens selected him. According to former Montreal forward Richard Zednik, a fellow Slovakian, the youngster is a big deal in his native land.

“People at home remember how he was our best player at the (2022 Beijing) Olympics, and then he gets taken first overall,” Zednik said. “The excitement about him over there is amazing.

“It’s the middle of the night back there at home, and I can guarantee you there were so many people staying up so they could watch this game. They weren’t disappointed.”

Zednik had 379 points (200 goals, 179 assists) in 745 games with the Canadiens, Washington Capitals, Florida Panthers and New York Islanders from 1996-2009. Prior to the game, he met with Slafkovsky and gave him some advice to try to help control the butterflies that were churning in the kid’s gut.

“I told him to take it all in and enjoy it,” Zednik said. “This is a special place to play with a rich history. People here care so much about hockey. I told him to embrace it.”

Slafkovsky did exactly that.

“It was amazing; they were so loud when I stepped onto the ice,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief.

It would get better.

Midway through the opening period, he crossed the blue line and snapped a shot that almost found its way between the legs of Maple Leafs goalie Matt Murray. Several minutes later, he dipsy-doodled his way through the Toronto defense, causing Rasmus Sandin to take a tripping penalty before he got a clear shot on goal.

“Did you see those moves?” Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher said. “Impressive.”

So was a play in the third period when he knocked Matthews down to the ice and became entangled with him. Yes, the same Matthews who Slafkovsky idolized up until being drafted.

“Hey, I don’t care who it is, I’m a Canadien and he’s an opponent, and he’s standing in the way of us winning,” Slafkovsky said. “You do what you have to do to win.

“It was the perfect ending to a perfect game.”

Slafkovsky was referring to the go-ahead goal scored by teammate Josh Anderson with 19 seconds remaining in regulation. It seemed like everyone in the arena not associated with the Maple Leafs jumped to their feet, Slafkovsky among them.

Afterward, in a jubilant Canadiens dressing room, he answered questions for at least 25 minutes with an omnipresent grin. Once he completed his media obligations, he posed for a photo with Zednik before seeking out his dad Juraj, who arrived in Montreal from Slovakia this week.

“He’s already a special player,” Zednik said. “What we saw tonight is just the beginning. He’s getting accustomed to the smaller ice surface and he’s only going to improve.

“I can tell you this. The best is yet to come.”

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