Kotkaniemi’s accelerated development trumps results for Canadiens

Montreal Canadiens' Jesperi Kotkaniemi, centre, moves in on New Jersey Devils goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood as Devils' Egor Yakovlev (74) defends during first period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Saturday, February 2, 2019. (Graham Hughes/CP)

MONTREAL — In the grand scheme of things, the Montreal Canadiens blew a golden opportunity against a downtrodden, banged up New Jersey Devils team on Saturday afternoon. A chance to win a game they were leading in the third period – and against a team that was missing its best player in Taylor Hall and five other regulars; a team that had won just six of 26 road games coming into this one.

Bleh. It’s a shame, really, with the standings being as tight as they are – and with the Canadiens facing a schedule that only gets tougher from this point forward. They’re in a dogfight to maintain their tenuous hold on one of the Eastern Conference’s eight playoff positions and they can’t afford to blow games of any kind, let alone games they dominate.

They outshot the Devils 39-27, out-chanced them in every period, out-played them in all three zones, and they lost 3-2 in overtime.

But, in the bigger picture, what the Canadiens saw in this game from their 18-year-old rookie, whom they chose third overall at last summer’s NHL Draft, was much more relevant than the point they sacrificed in a playoff race they were never expected to be in this deep into the season.

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It was fitting, on Kids Day at the Bell Centre, that Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who’s the youngest professional in any of the four major North American sports, showed all the signs he’s ready to play a bigger role from here to the end of the regular season, and possibly beyond. He opened the scoring for Montreal with a laser of a shot, he finished the game with 10 attempts, and he was involved all over the ice.

“I think he’s been better and better every game that the season’s been going on,” said Kotkaniemi linemate and fellow Pori, Finland native Joel Armia. “Every game, every practice, he’s been better and better.”

That seems more important than just about anything else happening with the Canadiens this season.

Kotkaniemi’s accelerated development is essential to the team’s future, and it was stated by the team’s management (prior to this season) that the future is much more important than the present. So when he shows up the way he did on Saturday, it inspires hope that the team can accomplish its quest to quickly graduate from playoff contender to Stanley Cup contender while cornerstone players Carey Price (31) and Shea Weber (33) are still playing at their top level.

The kid’s play was the talk of training camp – especially after he looked entirely out of place in his first-ever game in a Canadiens uniform, which was a loss to the Ottawa Senators’ farmhands at the annual Rookie Showcase in early September. Him making the team as a wiry 6-foot-2, 184-pounder, just three months removed from his 18th birthday, said everything about his potential and pushed the buzz to new heights. And what he’s done since – collecting seven goals and 24 points and not appearing remotely out of place at any point over 52 games — is worthy of our attention.

Canadiens coach Claude Julien, who’s much more focused on results, wasn’t entirely keen on singling out any of his players for praise after a tough loss, but still offered that Kotkaniemi “definitely had energy.”

“And in the first period I thought he could’ve had four goals,” Julien added. “That was what he brought tonight. He was good.”

Kotkaniemi was better than good, and Julien likely would have said as much had his team prevailed in the end.

More importantly, Julien’s actions spoke volumes – throwing Kotkaniemi over the boards for 19 shifts, including one in overtime.

It was just seconds before Kotkaniemi scored, at the 5:22 mark of the first period, that he set up a golden opportunity for linemate Artturi Lehkonen. The puck worked its way around the offensive zone, a cycle ensued, and Lehkonen returned the favour for Kotkaniemi to release a perfect shot that sneaked by the glove of Devils goaltender MacKenzie Blackwood.

A shift later, Kotkaniemi had a wraparound chance, a blocked shot attempt, and a tantalizing rush that finished with his backhand sailing over the crossbar of Blackwood’s net.

“I had top-cheese there (open) but didn’t hit that,” he said while shaking his head.

Then Kotkaniemi had four shot attempts on a second-period power play and helped create all the momentum that led to the goal Phillip Danault scored to give the Canadiens a 2-1 lead seconds after Kurtis Gabriel stepped out of the penalty box.

He was implicated in every facet of the game – registering two hits, not backing down from a third-period physical altercation with the bulkier Mirco Mueller, creating turnovers, and winning eight of his 15 faceoffs. It was clear the nine-day layover between games helped his cause.

“I slept well, so I had more energy,” he said of a three-day trip to Florida with one of his hometown pals. One that was spent mostly in the hotel room due to inclement weather.

How much energy Kotkaniemi’s stored will play a big hand in what he can do over the next 30 games (or more). If he’s got a lot of it and can continuing playing as he did against New Jersey, that will be more relevant than whatever points are gained or lost by the Canadiens over that time.

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