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The Kotkaniemi line impressed in Game 2, and it has a lot more to offer

There’s a lot of skill on Montreal’s now third line, and the goal now is to maximize it.

Montreal Canadiens v Philadelphia Flyers - Game Two Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

In Game 2, the line of Max Domi, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Jonathan Drouin dominated regardless of the strength of the opposition they faced. Instead of becoming a weak spot that the Philadelphia Flyers exploited with their last change ability, the trio ended up causing matchup problems for the opposition.

This is great news for the Montreal Canadiens. They may have discovered a weapon that could give them the edge in their series versus the orangeshirts. Still, the line’s outright success remains a bit unexpected, at least for me. I always thought that this combination would lead to a ton of quick-strike offence for the Habs — and it did — but also anticipated a back-and-forth type of game, one which the team could easily lose.

What I didn’t foresee was the intensity with which the three offensively minded players would decide to play, especially away from the puck. The motor of that line allowed them to control the flow of play.

The clip above is taken a few minutes into the game. After a turnover, Kotkaniemi and Domi pressures the Flyers’ defencemen. They force an indirect pass up the boards and then reload above the puck to reform a neutral-zone wall. Sensing an opportunity to use his acceleration, and being in a safe position to do so, Drouin pinches hard on the puck-carrier and creates a turnover. Domi also turns on the jets and wins a race to the loose puck, which allows him to create a two-on-one with Kotkaniemi that almost turns into a goal.

The new line conformed themselves to the team identity. The players pressured the opposition hard and transitioned with speed. If they continue to close their gaps quickly up-ice like this, it won’t matter if they are not a very effective at in-zone defence; they won’t have to play it at all.

In Game 2, I only clipped one extended defensive presence for them. There was another one that quickly went south, but Carey Price repaired the mistakes. Overall, the trio spent much of their ice time forechecking, backchecking, and counter-attacking — exactly what their game-plan should be.

But, even considering their already strong performance on Friday, there is still growth potential for this Habs third line, and that can only be viewed as a positive for the coaching staff.

Drouin, Domi, and Kotkaniemi had trouble setting up their rush attacks. They didn’t support each other that well (they mostly outraced the Flyers to the offensive zone) and they didn’t manage the puck that effectively either, sometimes overdangling (like Drouin in the video above) or poorly timing their feeds (like Domi slightly later). With better communication and reads, the trio could have realistically scored a few more goals.

As this was their first full game together, I think those issues will largely improve with time and familiarity. If there is one thing I would insist on in the video room, it’s the need to take ownership of the inside part of the ice.

Kotkaniemi attacks the middle every chance he has. It’s not only because he’s a centreman (although it can help a bit), it’s simply one of his habits. Drouin and Domi, even if they’re wingers, can also add that same habit to the benefit of the whole unit. They sometimes default to the wide corridor, preferring to set up or support plays from the walls.

On two occasions during the following sequence, Domi could have cut to the middle to create more dangerous scoring chances.

He had a first opportunity right after entering the offensive zone. His teammates were skating to the net and they freed space for him to cut to the middle line. Such a manoeuvre would have forced at least one defender to turn to follow him, and it would have likely attracted the attention of another, freeing one of his teammates around the blue paint for a pass.

Right afterward, as Drouin and Kotkaniemi engaged in a battle on the back wall, Domi could have moved to the slot as a one-timer option. Drouin sent a pass to the area, expecting Domi to be on the receiving end, but his opposite winger couldn’t catch it as he instead stood in the corner. He redeems himself by skating hard as F1 on the backcheck.

By working on details, like attacking the middle more often, the trio would further complicate the job of the defence. It would help them remain dangerous in what could turn into a long series.