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Micro Analysis: Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi dazzled in an otherwise dull performance

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The Habs may not have what it takes to be contenders right now, but their two young centremen promise a strong core for the future.

Detroit Red Wings v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

In last night’s game, the score didn’t matter. The contest only served as a sort of evaluation of the different facets of the game for the team; a way for the coaching staff to know what they will have to work on before the matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

After 60 minutes of exhibition hockey, the answer to those questions is clear. Everything needs work.

From the power-play breakouts to defensive-zone coverage, from offensive-zone timing to transition passing, all of the different systems will need to be re-studied, practised, and honed.

This isn’t surprising. In fact, it’s expected. This was the first game for a team that spent the past four months on the sidelines, waiting for the opportunity to jump back on the ice. The Penguins didn’t fare much better in their own matchup versus the Philadelphia Flyers in the earlier game.

But still, the Habs have their work cut out for them in the next few days. The team will aim to polish their play as much as they can before the opening night of the play-in series.

As we used to do in this series before the interruption of the season, let’s take a look at some of the details that stood out in this game, starting with the positive elements of two individual players: the two youngest on the team.

Youth leading the way

Jesperi Kotkaniemi

Kotkaniemi played one of his better games of the 2019-20 season in a Habs uniform. He lost his man a couple of times defensively and didn’t manage to threaten offensively as much as he is capable of, but that was the case for everyone on the team. It was one of his better games because he surpassed his counterparts in one specific category: connecting plays.

Most others seemed to struggle to make a simple lateral pass, but not KK. He attacked space to support teammates, identified his next play as he got the puck, kept the puck on his forehand (didn’t overhandle), and stayed unreadable to opponents. In other words: he executed the perfect passing formula, and did so over and over again.

In normal times (that’s regular mid-season games that are not played during a global pandemic), passing ability wouldn’t be an element to praise this much, but such crisp execution against the pressure of some of the fastest hockey players in the world, after months away from the rink, is a feat.

Kotkaniemi didn’t just pass well, he set up plays for teammates. He made sure to design the best possible conditions for his teammates when they received his feeds.

In the first video above, the centreman knew Jeff Petry joined the rush in the weak-side, wide lane. A simple shoulder-check gave him all the information he needed. But the centreman didn’t relay that information to the opposition. He shifted laterally, skated along the wall, attracted the attention of the defence to the opposite side of the ice, and made more space for his defenceman on the attack.

The same thing is seen in the second clip. Kotkaniemi supported the breakout and received the puck, but didn’t immediately pass. An instant feed would have put his teammates into trouble, as a forechecker approached them. So the 20-year-old waited for that forechecker to close on him before slipping the puck through the stick and skate of the opponent. A veteran move. Once again, Kotkaniemi’s eyes were fixed forward and the centreman wasn’t frenetically shuffling the puck. He held it in a pass position and waited for the right moment to thread it through.

The last example illustrated his poise and quick execution. He knew where he would aim his next play as soon as he touched the puck. In one swift motion he caught and dropped the puck, then lobbed it to Ben Chiarot cross-ice, serving his defenceman a scoring chance on a silver platter.

Kotkaniemi didn’t look noticeably faster, quicker, or stronger on his skates last night, even considering the zoomed-in camera that usually makes it seem like all players are rocketing up and down the ice. The skating issues he has are caused by a sub-par form more than a lack of strength (I will likely study his stride in another article very soon). But speed and explosiveness don’t comprise the core of Kotkaniemi’s game. He creates by reading the game faster than most, supporting teammates, and beating opponents through precise stickwork.

From what he showed last night, I’d say he’s back on the right track in this new/old season.

Nick Suzuki

If they ever remake Batman & Robin: The Movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger can stay on the sidelines. Nick Suzuki will play the role of Mr. Freeze. The casting director won’t get a better audition tape than the one of Suzuki last night turning Toronto Maple Leafs players into statues.

Most players never learn to manipulate opponents like the Habs’ other young centreman. They can probably do it in practice or against lesser competition, but not in limited space at game speed like Suzuki. NHL defencemen have seen them all: the fake-shots, the fake-passes, the fake-dangles ... they know the routines. To make them bite, to make them go down, to freeze them completely, one has to commit fully to the tricks.

Suzuki plays opponents with his whole body. He deceives with his head, shoulders, hips, and feet, as well as his stick. They all point to the same play; the one that, in the end, he doesn’t intend to use. Like any good illusionist, he also adds sleight of hand to his act to really overload the capabilities for attention of his audience. Only when he feels he has drawn the full focus of his observer does he pull off the fake. As the salient piece of the performance, it stuns the defender, and before he realize the foolery, Suzuki strikes. He transitions into his real play.

The two young centremen of the Habs didn’t have perfect nights, but they had the brightest displays of skill. A good sign for the still-rebuilding organization.