Let’s make something clear: Jesperi Kotkaniemi is not exactly a goal-scorer. At least, he hasn’t shown that special touch in his early career, be it in Finland, in international tournaments in his draft year, or in his first seasons with Montreal. But his release gives him a tool with which to build his goal-scoring game.
After all, when asked which shot impressed him the most in training camp, Jake Allen pointed to Kotkaniemi’s. And for good reason. The Finnish centreman probably tweaked it in the off-season. Or maybe it is just the effect of his strength training, the increased flexibility, the stability, the muscle mass gained — all things that help a player speed up his release, flex his stick, utilize his weight, and fire from better, more powerful puck positions.
The goal Kotkaniemi scored against Frederik Andersen demonstrated more than a few great technical elements. Some we didn’t really see from him as much before.
Kotkaniemi skated through the neutral zone and made sure to receive the puck inside a crossover to his left as to separate from Morgan Rielly, the closest pursuing defender. He then attacked the mid-line of the offensive zone to take on the Leafs’ goalie.
As Kotkaniemi advanced, Andersen probably foresaw a five-hole shot. That or he adopted that lower stance to prepare an explosive lateral movement, thinking Kotkaniemi would try to freeze him and go around. With the puck at his hip, the forward had every option open to him.
Kotkaniemi had already picked his spot, but he couldn’t get there straight away, not without deception. He held onto the puck until his skates leveled with the faceoff dots and extended the puck far from his body, blade closed and eyes fixed on the goalie’s chest, as to not reveal his target. Then, he kicked his inside leg back, dropped his weight onto his stick to flex it, and dragged the puck inside his skate. Simulatenously, he opened up his blade, releasing counter to expectation: short-side, top corner. The puck hit the top of the net.
Video analysis of Kotkaniemi’s shot
His closed blade suggested a far-side shot to Andersen. The goalie probably knew it was all an act, but could only guess the end result. He got beat by Kotkaniemi’s change of blade angle and drag-motion, but moreso by the quickness of the release. The puck moved laterally or horizontally, but barely in the vertical plane, backward to forward. The snapshot left the blade before the goalie could adjust.
Kotkaniemi’s shot was one of the few positives in last night’s outing versus the Leafs. The centreman’s overall performance, the confidence he showed trying multiple feints, going to the net, and almost scoring another goal — I don’t see how that was goalie interference — also deserved praise.
It has been another season of ups and downs for Kotkaniemi, not unexpected for one of the youngest players in the league even in his third year. He would probably score more with a bit more ice time, but his current linemates and spot in the lineup fit him well. Like every youngster, he has to learn to outperform his position before he can earn more responsibility.
This season, the Leafs gift you the occasional prime scoring chance, like Kotkaniemi's, but generally they have been better at not getting overly enthusiastic about offence. They come back defensively and play the puck more responsibly. It’s a more conservative style, and one that let their power play make the difference in the game. They will remain formidable opponents for the remaining six games between the teams, and there’s a decent chance the two formations meet in the playoffs.
To overcome them, Montreal obviously has to keep five players on the ice at all times and they have to shut down the middle and capitalize on mistakes, 2020 Columbus Blue Jackets style. In other words, the Habs probably win low-event games and lose high-event ones.