MONTREAL - A nasty hit on Andrei Kostitsyn opened the door for Georges Laraque to show why the Montreal Canadiens went looking for an enforcer last summer.
Laraque was front and centre in a rough and chippy second period as the Canadiens downed the Phoenix Coyotes 4-1 on two goals from Alex Tanguay and a goal and two assists from Saku Koivu on Saturday night, although they look to have lost their gifted left winger Kostitsyn for an undetermined period.
"Whether it was cheap hit or not, when one of your best players gets knocked out like that, you're not going to say it's OK - you want to respond to it," said Laraque.
Montreal was leading 2-0 at the 3:44 mark of the second period when defenceman Kurt Sauer got an arm into Kostitsyn's face and slammed his head into the glass. Kostitsyn's face hit the ice as he fell.
There was no call on the play, and the sell-out crowd of 21,273 chanted Laraque's name as Kostitsyn was helped from the ice in a daze with a large welt around his left eye. He did not return.
Coach Guy Carbonneau didn't wait to send out Laraque, but the six-foot-three 225-pound Sauer declined an invitation to fight, although a few minutes later he went with the smaller Tom Kostopoulos.
Fans were further incensed when Enver Lisin's high-stick on Alex Kovalev went uncalled, and Laraque finally found a taker in Todd Fedoruk to a loud ovation.
"Obviously, he's not going to go with me - he's not a heavyweight," Laraque said of Sauer, who has had 10 career fights to Laraque's 120. "I had to leave a message, but that's why a guy like Kostopoulos, who is more his size, responded.
"I can't jump on a guy and start pounding him and get five or 10 games (suspension). The league has punishment for hits to the head. I can only do so much. I don't want to get the team in trouble."
Carbonneau said Kostitsyn seemed to be feeling somewhat better after the game, but will need tests over the next couple of days to see if there are lingering effects from the hit.
"He came over the line and started to lay up and a bit and I just hit him," said Sauer, who added that there was no question of dropping the gloves with six-foot-three 243-pound Laraque. "He's a big guy, a tough guy. I'm not even in his league."
Coyotes captain Shane Doan, who scored his team's only goal, said it was a clean hit.
"But they want to defend their teammate and I understand that," he added.
Robert Lang also scored for Montreal (4-0-1), which won its fourth game in a row. Koivu passed Maurice (Rocket) Richard for seventh place in team history for career assists with 422nd.
The Coyotes (2-3-0) lost a third straight game and lost big for a second night in a row after a 6-3 defeat in Ottawa on Friday night.
Koivu, who missed most of training camp with a foot injury, has eight points in five games thus far, as does defenceman Andrei Markov.
"I was a little concerned because of the short training camp and only one real pre-season game, so when I look a that, I'm pleasantly surprised," said Koivu, whose younger brother Mikko is also on fire for the Minnesota Wild.
"Now, after Monday's game (against Florida), we'll get four or five days of practice. For both Alex and myself it's really key to get more skating and conditioning in."
The Canadiens signed Laraque as a free agent this summer mainly to spare defence anchor Mike Komisarek from having to step in when games get rough. Laraque missed all the team's pre-season games and the first three games of the regular season with a groin injury, but finally donned his No. 17 jersey this week against Boston.
"I thought he played well," said Carbonneau. "He had 11:36 of ice time and had a fight and he created things - that's what we want.
"We want him to play, not just fight."
Asked about the hit on Kostitsyn, he said: "They're trying to eliminate hits to the head and this was a hit to the head, whether or not it was intentional. He got him with his arm. I don't know what the league disciplinarian (Colin Campbell) will do."
After the incident, Kostitsyn's hot-blooded younger brother Sergei took a roughing penalty and Koivu later had to talk to him on the bench to settle him down.
The Canadiens led 11-4 in shots when Tanguay broke the ice, firing in a feed from Koivu from the slot past Ilya Bryzgalov at 6:11. Koivu made it 2-0 when he shot a clever diagonal pass from Andrei Markov into an open side at 11:17.
The Coyotes stormed back, but Price stoned Doan from point blank and Mikkel Boedker missed a wide open net from a tight angle.
The teams were each a man short when Tanguay got his second of the game, shooting into an open side after a perfect feed from Koivu 12:56 into the second frame. Daniel Winnik's clearing attempt went right to Lang for an easy goal on a power play at 19:04.
Doan broke Price's shutout bid at 10:00 of the third when Zbynek Michalek's shot went off Ryan O'Byrne's skate into the crease and Doan was there to bang in his fourth of the season.
Montreal is 7-0-3 in its last 10 meetings with Phoenix and has not lost to the Coyotes since Oct. 28, 1996 - the year after the franchise left Winnipeg.
Notes: Christopher Higgins (groin) and Francis Bouillon (knee) sat out a fifth straight game for Montreal but are expected back for a game Monday against Florida. Steve Begin was a healthy scratch. . . . Daniel Carcillo sat out the second of his two-game suspension, while Brian McGratton and Ryan Lannon didn't dress for Phoenix.