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Jesperi Kotkaniemi is earning Claude Julien’s confidence

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Jesperi Kotkaniemi is finding his game when it matters most, and the coaching staff is taking notice.

Montreal Canadiens v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

It’s no secret that Jesperi Kotkaniemi hit the dreaded sophomore slump with the Montreal Canadiens during the 2019-20 regular season. That, coupled with some injury troubles, led to him spending a significant amount of time with the Laval Rocket before COVID-19 derailed the season.

The detour to Laval was perhaps concerning to some, but important to his long-term development. That, and the time off thanks to the shutdown seems to be just what the doctor ordered, as we’ve been seeing some of the best hockey the Finn has played in his young career.

He scored twice during the play-in series, and it seemed his legs have caught up to the size he added last offseason and over the shutdown. He continued his strong play on Wednesday, and though didn’t find the net like he did against the Penguins, he was very noticeable out there.

Claude Julien has obviously taken notice, as he’s trusting Kotkaniemi to play important minutes in the playoffs. Last night against the Flyers, he played the bulk of his even-strength minutes - 8:25 to be precise - with Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia. Drouin is certainly not known for being a defensive stalwart, and Armia has been struggling since the play-in series against the Penguins, so it’s a sign of trust that Julien would look to Kotkaniemi to anchor a line with those two as wingers.

They did get a heavy dose of offensive zone starts, but controlled 55% of shot attempts over that time, so they were solid, if unspectacular. Kotkaniemi only managed 38%success in the faceoff circle, but this isn’t terrible on a night where only Phillip Danault was over 50%. After all, the Flyers are one of the very best faceoff teams in the league.

In the third period, Claude Julien threw somewhat of a curveball, as Kotkaniemi actually skated several shifts with Drouin and Max Domi. They didn’t manage to find the net, but they looked very dangerous, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if he looks to try that combination again on Friday for game two.

If Wednesday’s game is any indication, the Habs have a legitimate chance to take this series. Game two will be important in negating home ice advantage for matchups, so if Kotkaniemi can get one or both of Drouin and Domi going offensively, it could go a long way to securing a pivotal win in the series.

This was about as encouraging of a playoff loss as I’ve ever seen, and the play from Kotkaniemi was particularly so.