TORONTO – When Joonas Nattinen imagined his NHL debut, he dreamt big.
“A hat trick, a great night in Montreal,” he said with a smile.
Nattinen’s first game for the Montreal Canadiens won’t come at Bell Centre in Montreal. Instead, it’s against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre on Saturday night.
“This’ll do,” he said. “I can do a hat trick here.”
If the 23-year-old Finnish forward’s game is as strong as his sense of humour, that might be feasible. As it is, Nattinen is expected to skate on the fourth line with George Parros and Travis Moen, and coach Michel Therrien wants him to keep things simple.
“I’m sure he’s going to be nervous,” Therrien said. “That’s normal. Make the percentage play, make sure he’s going to focus on being in good position.”
Nattinen, a third-round pick of the Habs in 2009, has five goals and six assists this season for their AHL affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs. He thinks the coaching staff wants the same play out of him that he showed in Hamilton.
“He’s got size (and) he’s playing well defensively,” Therrien said. “And we’re looking forward to giving him his first chance in the NHL. … Every time we play the Leafs on a Saturday night, you can’t ask for better excitement.”
Nattinen won’t ask for more. This is exactly what he has been waiting for—for a long time.
“Roughly probably 20 years,” he said. “It feels good. It feels really good right now.”
To make room for Nattinen, Rene Bourque will be a healthy scratch, Therrien confirmed. Bourque has zero points in 13 games since returning from injury.
Nattinen wasn’t expecting a call-up, nor for his first NHL game to come down the road from where he was playing in Hamilton. After that “pleasant surprise,” it’s up to him to make the most of it.
“I’m just trying to enjoy all the minutes I’ll get there and play as good as I can for this team,” Nattinen said.
Part of the challenge is calming the nerves. The message from former Bulldogs teammate Brendan Gallagher was simply to have fun and relax.
“He’s going to help our team,” Gallagher said. “We look forward to having him here and for him to just come out and enjoy the night, enjoy the atmosphere and it’ll be a game you remember for the rest of your life.”
Follow @SWhyno on Twitter.