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Micro Analysis: Jesperi Kotkaniemi shifted up a gear on Wednesday

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He hasn’t yet hit his top speed this season, but there was obvious progress versus the Senators.

NHL: NOV 20 Senators at Canadiens Photo by Vincent Ethier/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last night was a duel of faith. In the third period, both tired teams posted their defencemen at the point, fired puck after puck, and hoped one found the way to the back of the net. Ultimately none did. Instead, the game was decided by a weird play in overtime.

Did Nick Suzuki fail to pull back and wait for Ottawa to exit the zone, or switch to a new man after coming over to Tomas Tatar? Was Tatar slow to react to the ensuing play? No matter the reason, it’s not where the game should have ended up. The Habs controlled the overall flow of the play, they just couldn’t put the finishing touch on any of their setups — a repeat story from the previous game versus Columbus.

The main positive in this overall flat performance is Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s play. It was one of his better showings of the season, and definitely his best night since coming back from injury.

He had the puck on his stick a lot more. We saw him dangle through the defence and slide passes through sticks and skates using both his forehand and backhand, a throwback to some of his best moments last year. He was more of a threat to score in the way he supported the movement of his linemates.

Watch him rush the puck up the ice in the clips below. He creatively used give-and-gos, timely fakes, and attracted defenders onto himself to free skating lanes for teammates.

It’s hard to completely ignore the advantage the Ottawa Senators’ system gave him in this game. Part of the reason he was able to create those controlled entries was that the Sens tend to back off a bit more in the neutral zone than other teams. Their F3 (or highest player on the forecheck) doesn’t always look to disturb rushing players, but instead can retreat with his defencemen, following the Habs’ own high forward and forming a wall at the defensive blue line.

This system tends to give opposing forwards more of a runway to pick up speed and attack their zone. It still aims to force dumps-ins, but its ultimate goal is protect the slot after an opposing entry. If the opposition does get in, the retreating players can immediately form a defensive box and push players to the outside.

Contrast this with the relentless, heavy-pressure style of Columbus that looks first and foremost to prevent all controlled zone entries. That system gave Kotkaniemi a lot of trouble.

In the clip above he attempted to carry the puck out. On top of being hunted by two opposing forwards, a third one (F3) slashed across the ice to his side to further reduce the space he had to work with. His only play became to send a very difficult stretch backhand pass to Artturi Lehkonen across the ice, a pass that he missed.

Overall, it’s playing inside reduced space that has mostly been problematic for Kotkaniemi this season. It starts with his balance. Kotkaniemi added weight to his frame with specific workouts during the summer. In theory, this should help him hold his own along the boards as he became heavier to move. But skating form is just as important as strength and mass when it comes to holding your ground against contact, and his form remains awkward.

His knees are rarely bent to an optimal 90-degree angle and he still hunches over a bit too much. It brings his weight forward and makes him easier to shove to the ice. Plus, it looks like Kotkaniemi’s also uses a long stick, which is not without its advantages, but can make playing the puck in tight a bit more challenging and further complicate his balance.

This downfall doesn’t prevent him from making plays (as you can see from the video), but it limits the extent to which he can hold on to the puck.

Currently for Kotkaniemi, it’s all about making decisions quickly when the opposition collapses on him, pushing the puck toward his linemates to keep the offence alive. He is paired with good puck-retrievers and -protectors in Lehkonen and Jordan Weal for a reason; he can use them and reposition to get the puck back into space, where he can become his usual creative self.

This game should be viewed as a stepping stone for Kotkaniemi. We don’t know the full context of his sophomore season — is an injury still nagging him? — and it is too soon, way too soon, to be making any harsh judgments about the fourth-youngest active player in the NHL.

Saturday’s upcoming matchup against the New York Rangers, who are not the most structured team, should give another occasion for Kotkaniemi to gain his confidence back. The Habs will need him to continue elevating his game while Jonathan Drouin is out, and also as they look to the future of the team.