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Habs' Domi experiment will take centre stage in season opener at Toronto

MONTREAL — After an inauspicious start, the Montreal Canadiens are ready for part two of their Max Domi experiment.

MONTREAL — After an inauspicious start, the Montreal Canadiens are ready for part two of their Max Domi experiment.

Domi will play at centre Wednesday when Montreal opens the 2018-19 season in Toronto, where his father, Tie, was once a popular enforcer.

It will be the first game for the younger Domi since his Montreal debut on Sept. 19, when he was suspended for the remainder of the pre-season sucker punching Florida Panthers defenceman Aaron Ekblad in the face.

"I think it's special for everyone," Domi said Tuesday. "It's one of the biggest rivalries in sports, not just in hockey. It's a good hockey team over there. We know that, and how much skill they have."

As a result of the suspension, the Canadiens haven't had a sufficient look of Domi at the centre position. The forward spent some time as a centre in Arizona, and played the position in junior, but has mostly been used as a winger in the NHL.

Domi centred a line with Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen at the Habs' practice Tuesday.

"There's no doubt I wish I could've seen more from him in pre-season. No doubt he would've loved to have played more with his teammates," Canadiens head coach Claude Julien said. "It is what it is. Now it's up to he and us as a coaching staff to adapt as we go along.

"If he does well, he's going to stay. If not, then we'll have to shuffle things around."

Domi deflected questions about returning to the lineup without much time at centre during the pre-season.

"I want to win as many games as possible," Domi said. "It's not going to be easy. This league is the best league in the world for a reason. You can't take a night off, can't take a shift off, and you definitely can't take a game off. We're ready to go."

One player who benefited from Domi's absence is Jesperi Kotkaniemi. The rookie centre will play his first regular-season game for the Canadiens on Wednesday and spent Tuesday's practice playing with Jonathan Drouin and fellow Finn Joel Armia.

The rookie, nicknamed "KK," says he isn't nervous about the upcoming game.

"I think it's (just) another game in my career," Kotkaniemi said. "Of course, it's a little more spicy because it's our first game of the season. Everyone's a little excited so I think that's a good thing."

Domi said Kotkaniemi fully deserves his chance with the Canadiens.

"I was so happy for him," Domi said. "He's a great kid. So humble. And he works so hard. He deserves every bit of credit he's gotten and I'm really excited for him. He's got a great opportunity. He's a hell of a hockey player."

While Wednesday's game being Domi's first as a Hab against Toronto, it won't be his first game against the Leafs. Domi has played as an opponent in Toronto twice during his career, and has scored in both games. Domi's father, his family and friends will be in attendance, he says.

Domi was traded to Montreal from Arizona this past June in exchange for forward Alex Galchenyuk. The forward is coming off a season where he scored nine goals and 45 points in 82 games.

Domi said after being traded that he'd try to get his father to wear a Habs jersey, but he wouldn't confirm if the ex-Leaf would wear it on Wednesday.

"I don't know. I think you guys are going to have to do your homework and try and find him in the crowd," Domi said. "Good luck with that."

NOTES:  The Canadiens will place forward Jacob De La Rose on injured reserve after a "cardiac episode" he suffered following the Canadiens-Senators game on Sept. 29. ... Andrew Shaw will be a game-time decision for the Canadiens. Shaw hasn't played since March when he suffered a knee injury and a concussion in a game against the Dallas Stars. ... Forward Jonathan Drouin was at practice Tuesday after sitting out Monday's practice.

Julian McKenzie, The Canadian Press