When the Montreal Canadiens opened their First Round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, there were a few questionable lineup decisions. Youngsters Cole Caufield, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Alexander Romanov were all in the stands to watch their team squeak out a 2-1 win over their long-time rivals. However, due to injuries, both Caufield and Kotkaneimi found their way into the lineup. Kotkaniemi joined the lineup first, replacing rookie Jake Evans in the lineup in Game 2. Since then, the youngster hasn’t looked back playing some of his best hockey this season. He has played a key role for the Canadiens thus far in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi Stepping Up for the Montreal Canadiens
2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs
After going through an injury-plagued sophomore, Kotkaniemi was demoted to the AHL to try to find his game. He did just that, scoring 13 points in 13 games before suffering a spleen injury prior to the shutdown.
Kotkaniemi returned to his native Finland to work harder on the areas of his game where he struggled. That being his skating and to get stronger. He worked with Janne Hanninen and Raimo Summanen who developed a training camp to help improve players skating abilities. It’s a camp Joel Armia extended an invite to Kotkaniemi during the offseason prior to the 2019-20 season. Kotkaniemi declined originally, but then took advantage of the camp during the shutdown, and it paid huge dividends.
When Kotkaniemi returned to the Canadiens for their play-in series against the Penguins, he looked like a totally different player. His skating had improved, and his shot looked like it was a lot quicker and harder than it was during the season. But most of all, he was stronger. Kotkaniemi was winning most of his puck battles and was not afraid to start throwing his body around. He worked extremely hard during last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, wanting to prove he was the player the Habs thought he could be when they drafted him third overall in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.
Kotkaniemi tied Nick Suzuki for the team lead in goals during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs with four goals in 10 games. However, it was his all-around game that really shined for the team, giving the Canadiens hope moving forward.
Picking Up Where He Left Off
While Kotkaniemi had an up and down regular season for the Habs, he is picking up right where he left off from the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It seems Kotkaniemi had a chip on his shoulder after being made a healthy scratch in Game 1. He wasted no time getting on the scoreboard in Game 2, scoring just 7:57 into the first period. The Canadiens went on to get blown out 5-1 in the game, however, Kotkaniemi played an outstanding first game.
And he didn’t stop there. Kotkaniemi continued to throw his body around, winning puck battles and creating chances for the Canadiens. He scored the third goal in Game 5 after creating a turnover behind the Leafs net and taking it out front on the backhand before cleaning up his own rebound to give the Canadiens a 3-0 lead. He started the play initially dumping it into the far corner for Josh Anderson to chase the puck. After Leafs defenceman Rasmus Sandin corralled the puck and tried to go behind the net to make a play, Kotkaniemi cut him off and intercepted the play and the rest is history.
The goal proved to be extremely important, as the Leafs ended up storming back to tie the game before Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki completed a perfect 2 on 0 after intercepting a pass from Alex Galchenyuk keeping the Canadiens alive and heading back to Montreal to play in front of 2500 fans.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi Plays Hero in Game 6
Down 3-2, the Canadiens headed back to Montreal to play in front of some of the Habs faithful. It was the first time since the global pandemic started last season that there were fans at the Bell Centre. Despite there only being 2500 fans, they were incredibly loud. This gave the Canadiens a much-needed boost as they continued to try to complete the improbable comeback. Kotkaniemi had arguably his best game of the series. He worked hard, winning most of his puck battles as well as finishing 60 percnt in the faceoff circle. He logged 15 minutes of ice time as well as put four shots on goal, his final one being the game-winner in overtime off a feed from Paul Byron. While his first two goals were scored while digging in front of the net, his game-winner was a beautifully placed shot just over Leafs goalie Jack Campbell.
It was the best game the Canadiens played in this series. They put together a solid first 50 minutes before the Maple Leafs started to pour on the pressure. They tied the game at two in the final 10 minutes of the third to force overtime. Despite getting outplayed in overtime, the Canadiens made the best of their chances, as Kotkaniemi sealed the deal on just the second shot of the period for the Habs.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi Proving to be a Playoff Performer Early in his Career
While Kotkaniemi’s regular season play has been up and down so far during his career, he takes his game up a notch during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He now leads the Canadiens in goals so far during the Stanley Cup Playoffs with three in just five games. Only one less than he scored in 10 games last season. That brings his total to seven in just 15 playoff games. This also leads the Canadiens over their last two playoff appearances. He’s been a crucial player for the Habs in their first-round matchup. With the series heading back to Toronto for Game 7 on Monday, May 31, you can bet your bottom dollar that the youngster will put together his best performance yet.