Canadiens’ final game crucial for Kotkaniemi, other young players

Montreal Canadiens forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi says he's not too concerned about his struggles of late and his decreased ice-time, and he's just soaking in the fact that they clinched, and are heading to the playoffs.

MONTREAL — We don’t really blame him.

On Tuesday, when Jesperi Kotkaniemi was asked several questions — including two by yours truly — about how he can recapture his confidence like he did at the end of a turbulent regular season a year ago, he chose to speak about the team instead of himself. We understand why he did.

He’s a 20-year-old kid, a 2018 third overall pick once again under the gun to cement his place in the lineup, and he clearly felt it wouldn’t help his situation to start opening up about the current state of his game and acknowledge what needs to happen for him to bring his play back up to where it’s expected.

Perhaps Kotkaniemi felt he wasn’t given a chance to do that on Monday, limited to a team-low 9:13 of ice time in the 4-3 overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers that allowed the Montreal Canadiens to clinch the NHL’s final playoff berth.

He deserved a bit more to find some rhythm — especially in the first period, when he played just four shifts for a total of 2:44 — but he struggled to earn it. And this was after going 23 games without a goal and registering only four assists over that span despite averaging close to 16 minutes per game.

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We know Kotkaniemi has had wingers shuffling to and from his line — several of them at times when they were struggling to score — and that has affected his production. We know he was played out of position as a winger to account for Brendan Gallagher’s absence, and that had its effect, too.

But this is about what Kotkaniemi can and must control as he enters the final game of the regular season, which matters a lot less for the team than it does for him.

“He needs to play,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme on Tuesday, and he wasn’t referring to ice-time.

“He needs to be dynamic when he has the puck, making strong plays,” Ducharme continued. “He knows what we expect, and he expects a lot from himself, too.

“(Wednesday) is another day and I’m confident he’s going to be having a good game (against the Oilers).”

If Kotkaniemi is going to follow through, he’ll have to get his feet moving and start engaging physically with that six-foot-two, 201-pound body of his. He’ll need to start pulling the trigger quicker on that missile of a wrister, as Canadiens goaltender Jake Allen termed it back in training camp, and taking care of the little details that make him such a versatile player.

That’s what allowed Kotkaniemi to take Max Domi’s spot and prove himself indispensable in last year’s playoffs. It’s what he needs to do now if he wants to be in the lineup over Eric Staal when the Canadiens start this year’s post-season in Toronto, up against the North Division-leading Maple Leafs for the first time since 1979.

If the young Finn needs to completely tune out the noise to do it, that’s perfectly understandable.

Canadiens defenceman Jeff Petry, who went through more than his fair share of struggles early in his career, knows the feeling.

“For me it was always just to not overthink it and to not get down on yourself,” he said. “It’s easier said than done, but just believe in yourself and know that things can change very quickly. I think when anyone’s going through a tough stretch, you’re gripping your stick and overthinking. But I think he has the tools and has the ability to get out of it and to grow.”

The first step is ending off the season, over which Kotkaniemi has scored just five goals and 20 points in 55 games, on the right note.

The same goes for rookie Alex Romanov, who’s been steady most of the year but is struggling of late. The language barrier protects him from the open-air discussion about his game that Kotkaniemi has been subjected to, but he’s had some internal ones with the coaching staff to get his focus in the right place.

“He needs to simplify everything,” said a scout we spoke with earlier this week. “He’s got the energy, but he’s a bit hyperactive and a bit too all over the place. He’s got to find a way to settle himself and just make the simple plays he’s capable of, continue playing physical and just take care of the assignments in front of him instead of chasing the ones nowhere near him.”

Romanov didn’t do enough of that in the game against Edmonton, and it wasn’t a coincidence he finished the night minus-3.

His partner didn’t help. Jon Merrill was minus-2 on Monday, making him minus-11 in 12 games since coming to the Canadiens from the Detroit Red Wings. The 29-year-old’s job is to insulate the 21-year-old Russian, to trust him and take care of his own side of the ice.

Merrill hasn’t done that, and he hasn’t done much else to show he’s the player the Canadiens thought they were getting when they gave up a 2021 fifth-rounder and prospect Hayden Verbeek to acquire him. He’s a defensive defenceman who’s done a poor job of defending, and if he’s going to prove himself as a viable depth option in the playoffs, this final game is an opportunity for him.

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It’s one for Cole Caufield, too. The 20-year-old sniper has looked more and more comfortable since debuting with the Canadiens on April 26. He has three goals —including two overtime winners — in nine games, and he’s acquitting himself well without the puck.

But Brendan Gallagher and Phillip Danault are going to be locked into a line with Tomas Tatar to start the playoffs, and Ducharme said on Tuesday he’s confident in the line of Paul Byron, Jake Evans and Artturi Lehkonen, which did a masterful job in Monday’s game. That realistically pits Caufield in competition with Joel Armia, as Corey Perry and Josh Anderson are locked into their positions.

It likely puts the kid on the outside looking in, at least to start the playoffs. Unless he comes up with something special on Wednesday and shows that some practice — the Canadiens haven’t had two consecutive days of it since Ducharme took over as head coach from Claude Julien on Feb. 24 — will help him polish his game leading up to the series.

Either way, Caufield has already shown he’ll be an option.

Cayden Primeau will probably have an opportunity to do the same, as it’s likely he gets the start on Wednesday. The young goaltender had a rough outing in Toronto one week ago, allowing four goals on 15 shots in a game he was pulled from after the first period, and it’s important that he bounces back.

Primeau must show he’s a viable option behind Jake Allen — especially since Carey Price hasn’t played in over three weeks and will be coming off a concussion to start Game 1 of the playoffs.

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