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Jesperi Kotkaniemi is heating up

The Canadiens’ strength lies in their depth, as evidenced by the performance of their third-line centre on Thursday.

Calgary Flames v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Off to one of their best starts in recent memory, the Montreal Canadiens have been getting significant contributions from nearly everyone on the roster. One of the quieter players — albeit far from disappointing — has been Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Despite not having the statistical output of his linemate Tyler Toffoli, he’s been quietly good and prime for a breakout.

I submit to you that last night against the Calgary Flames was a significant step towards such a Kotkaniemi breakout.

Despite temporarily losing one of his regular wingers in Joel Armia, Kotkaniemi now sits at five points through seven games. The depth of the Canadiens allowing for a player like Corey Perry to be the replacement for Armia is a luxury, and though Kotkaniemi may miss his countryman, he doesn’t appear to be missing a beat.

Last night was a tough one at even strength for the Habs, but they picked their spots, and Kotkaniemi was a big part of that. It started with a solid move down from the point on the power play to set up Perry, and ultimately Brendan Gallagher for the goal. Seeing him read the play and come down from the point, drawing some of the coverage away from the front of the net, was a stark contrast to the Habs power plays of old.

What I personally found more impressive was his play on the Josh Anderson goal in the second period.

Kotkaniemi is the last of his trio on a change, so he finds himself out with Jonathan Drouin and Anderson. He turns on the jets to get the two-on-one, and one of the more frustrating things about watching him sometimes is that he has too much of a pass-first mentality. His shot is very good, and he needs to figure out how to use it more instinctually. He does this time, and it creates a juicy rebound for the streaking Anderson.

Of course, Anderson had to show some excellent hands to bat the puck in, but I like Kotkaniemi’s decision here. The passing lane was all but closed, and when you look at the velocity he put on that shot, it’s going to create that juicy rebound against most goaltenders unless they let it in. With him, the shot will be the better option more often than not.

None of the Canadiens forward lines fared exceptionally well at five-on-five in terms of possession, but the Kotkaniemi line was the closest to break-even of the four trios. They clocked in at 45.45% of even-strength shot attempts. What was exceptional was their share of scoring chances, however, taking 60% of the regular variety, and a perfect 100% of high-danger chances.

Although they didn’t win the possession game, what we should take from the scoring chances is that they played well defensively. This is going to be important with as many games as the team will have against Calgary and Toronto this year. Early on, it appears to be a three-team race between these clubs, so Montreal’s ability to trust it’s bottom-six to defend like this while contributing at the other end will be big.

After the game, Kotkaniemi noted that rolling four lines has made it easier for the Habs this season. With him heating up as the third-line pivot, the ability to do just that will continue to be a major strength for this team.