Canadiens Takeaways: On Kotkaniemi, Suzuki and finishing strong

Brendan Gallagher scored the game-winning goal in his first game back in the lineup as the Canadiens topped the Sabres 3-1.

It’s not how you start that’s important, but how you finish.

The Montreal Canadiens have to hope that what proved true for them on Thursday night in Buffalo can be replicated in the grand scheme of things. Because they came out of the gate asleep — allowing the first eight shots on net to the Sabres and a goal to their captain Jack Eichel — and then proceeded to dominate the hockey game from that point forward.

Goals for Brendan Gallagher (in just his second game back from concussion symptoms that lingered after a hit from Carolina’s Jordan Staal sent him reeling into teammate Ben Chiarot’s knee) and Ilya Kovalchuk came in a second period that saw the Canadiens out-shoot the Sabres 14-3.

By the time Tomas Tatar iced the game with an empty-net goal to make it 3-1 Montreal, the fans at KeyBank Arena were signing ‘Ole… Ole, Ole, Ole.’

That’s the tune Canadiens fans at the Bell Centre — and abroad — hope to be belting out rather frequently over the final 30 games of the season.

Both teams came into this game 10 points out of a playoff spot and with just 51 points in the standings earned. It goes without saying, what’s happened to this point hasn’t been anything to write home about for either team.

But if the Canadiens can finish strong, if they can use this key win — their fifth in their last seven games — as a vault to a healthy run from here to the Feb. 24 trade deadline, they might give us a story worth investing in down the stretch.

The odds are stacked heavily against them and — based on what we’ve seen — there isn’t much reason to believe they can overcome them. But it’s not how you start that’s important.

KOTKANIEMI BEING SCRATCHED THE RIGHT DECISION

Let’s get something straight, because it was predictably blown out of proportion on social media (shocker!) when it was announced after the warmup that Jesperi Kotkaniemi was being scratched from Montreal’s lineup for this game.

The 19-year-old was objectively the Canadiens’ least effective player in a 4-2 loss to the Washington Capitals on Monday, and coach Claude Julien wouldn’t have been doing him any favours dressing him over any of the 12 forwards who played in Buffalo. He needs to be accountable for his play as much as anyone else on the team.

It’s about the team. Sure, the Canadiens might be far out of position, but they’re playing to win every game and that means the players who earn their spots are going to play and be used accordingly.

Here’s what Julien told reporters in French about that after the game.

“We have to go with our best players,” the coach said. “It’s not that Kotkaniemi isn’t a good player, but he’s had difficulty and his injuries (groin, concussion) have slowed him down this season… I have to make difficult decisions. It’s not a question of stifling the development of a player, but you have to make decisions based on the task ahead of us.”

About that: The idea that this is going to cripple Kotkaniemi’s confidence, or that there’s nothing he can learn from being scratched for a game (or two, because it’s doubtful he’s hopping right back in after a key win) is ridiculous. The fact is, Kotkaniemi’s confidence hasn’t been where he’d like it to be for most the season, and that’s just the nature of being one of the youngest players in the NHL and navigating the ups and downs that come with that.

People need to remember that he’s still the youngest player on the Canadiens and that there are only a handful of players younger than him in the NHL. They need to understand that sitting out sometimes is part of the process for players his age.

And to the others, who have suggested the Canadiens erred in taking Kotkaniemi third overall in 2018 or that he’s a bust, they need to realize he scored 11 goals and 34 points as the youngest player in the league last season and that he’s one of dozens of examples of players who have struggled in their sophomore year.

Kotkaniemi is a very competitive player. He’s a highly skilled and intelligent player. Julien said as much after the game.

Lastly, Kotkaniemi is also mature enough to understand what’s at stake for the team right now and mature enough to realize what he has to do to earn his place back in the lineup.

Sticking with the theme of the night: It’s not how you start that’s important, but how you finish.

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QUICK HITS

• If you’re down on Kotkaniemi, you might want to think about Nick Suzuki as an example of what can happen in development from 18 to 20 years old — regardless of where that development takes place.

Suzuki had two cracks to make the NHL after being drafted 13th overall by the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017, but he didn’t appear nearly as ready at 18 as Kotkaniemi did. Heck, if we’re being honest, Suzuki didn’t appear nearly as ready at 19 as Kotkaniemi did when he was 18.

But look at him now.

On Thursday, Suzuki scored his 29th and 30th point of the season with assists on goals by Kovalchuk and Tatar. He played above Max Domi in the lineup, he played on the power play and on the penalty kill, and he saw the ice more than any other Canadiens forward not named Joel Armia.

• Also of note on Suzuki: He came into the game with a 50.3 per-cent efficiency rating on more than 400 faceoffs taken this season.

On this night, he lost eight of 13.

But it’s the faceoffs Suzuki won that really stood out. Like the one that led to Kovalchuk’s goal, or his only one in the defensive zone — late in the third period, with the Canadiens clinging to a one-goal lead.

It was Suzuki who came up with a big faceoff win in the neutral zone to help kill off teammate Phillip Danault’s late-game penalty, and his final one came shortly before the insurance marker for Tatar.

• Kovalchuk got the tying goal to bring his totals to five goals and nine points in 10 games with the Canadiens.

The six-foot-three, 222-pounder also had a couple of monster hits in the game — first on Michael Frolik and then later on Rasmus Ristolainen.

• Gallagher played 17:05, had a goal, just missed scoring another on a third-period breakaway, and had a team-leading five shots on net.

• Armia, who was drafted by the Sabres 16th overall in 2011, now has five goals and seven points in 10 games against Buffalo.

Armia had two assists Thursday and now has 24 points in 39 games this season. The big Finn is now just five points away from tying his career high, which was set in 79 games with the Winnipeg Jets in 2017-18.

UP NEXT:

The Canadiens return to Montreal for back-to-back matinee games this weekend against the Florida Panthers and Columbus Blue Jackets.

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