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Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are learning defence the hard way

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It’s a trial by fire as the young centremen learn from costly mistakes in important games.

NHL: MAR 19 Canucks at Canadiens Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last night’s game was a continuation of Friday’s. The Montreal Canadiens accumulated scoring chances, firing again and again from the slot, tipping pucks, and picking off rebounds, but no matter the quality of their chances, no matter their offensive efforts, they couldn’t distance themselves from the Canucks on the scoreboard for the same reason they couldn’t on Friday: costly defensive mistakes.

This time, however, the team came out the other side with a much-deserved win instead of bitter feelings. They even vanquished their most imposing foes this season in the process: the overtime and shootout periods.

A 1-9 record after regulation is nothing to be proud of, but it still represents a ray of light. Winning is possible. They looked better in the three-on-three than they had in previous games. They applied possession principles, used Carey Price as a fourth skater as a way to reload the play, and picked their offensive opportunities better; they only attacked with numbers and with a speed difference.

Does it mean that the defensive mistakes should be ignored? No, but they should be looked at from the right angle, as a few of those mistakes had Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi as culprits.

In the past two games, the young centres have struggled to consistently maintain their defensive responsibilities. In the clips I posted of Friday night’s contest in my previous article, it was often Kotkaniemi who disturbed the defensive-zone coverage by floating away from his check. Again last night, on the Canucks’ fourth goal, he created confusion by backchecking too much as F1.

On a three-on-three defensive rush, the opposing net-driver is usually given to the weak-side defender as he enters the zone. The F1 switches off and takes care of the high-slot passing lanes. Maybe Kotkaniemi thought he would get support from his F2 and F3, Joel Armia and Artturi Lehkonen; that his teammates would beat their own checks up-ice. But the supporting forwards were delayed. Armia had to go fetch his lost stick and Lehkonen had just pursued an opponent below the opposing goal line.

Suzuki also had his own set of blunders: the obvious mishandle of the puck behind his net that led to the Canucks’ first goal, and a lost faceoff, where the opposing centre escaped his grasp, got in an open lane behind him, and scored the third goal. (Although that second one is more of a team breakdown. In lost defensive zone faceoffs, Habs centers usually front point shots to block them, while the wall defenceman comes back to tie up the net-rushing opponent and prevent a tip.)

These are expected growing pains for the Canadiens. When they started the season with two centres younger than 22, they knew that these kinds of mistakes would happen, that they wouldn’t get defensive consistency from them for the whole season — especially when facing weaker opponents against which the mind has a tendency to relax.

It can be hard to detach yourself from the current season as the Canadiens are still battling for a playoff spot. They are supposed to contend right now. But Suzuki and Kotkaniemi aren’t done improving. Considering the defensive pride and attention to detail that both of them show in most games, in a couple of years, the more obvious defensive mistakes should disappear from their play, or at least not feature as prominently over a set of back-to-back games.

A clear indicator that we will see such growth is their ability to bounce back from mistakes, especially Suzuki’s.

After getting walked by J.T. Miller in overtime on Friday night, Suzuki opened the scoring last night with another precise snapshot on the power play, one you used to see frequently out of him in Junior with the Owen Sound Attack and that is starting to come out more in his NHL game. Then, after giving the Canucks their first goal of the game, Suzuki collected himself and went on to have a solid defensive presence against the other team’s top line a few minutes later. He cut a pass and organized a rush that led to a prime scoring chance for Montreal.

In that rush, you didn’t see the tunnel vision that sometimes affects young players after a mistake. Suzuki showed the same great offensive habits.

He accelerated to open ice on reception, and as the backcheck collapsed on him, passed early to Josh Anderson, who rushed with him. Suzuki then slowed down to avoid getting into the checking range of the opposing defenceman in front of him. This change of gear enabled him to remain open for a return pass. The disc moved back to him and Suzuki didn’t force a second pass to Anderson through two opponents, he turned to hit his other winger: the trailing Jonathan Drouin.

Twice in that sequence, Suzuki made the correct play under pressure to both extend and improve the conditions of the offensive sequence. He focused defensive attention on himself and then hit teammates in space, giving them time and runways to make potentially dangerous plays.

The play ultimately led to a Romanov wirstshot from the slot and could have turned into a goal had the defencemen connected with Suzuki at the near post.

We have seen it time and time again that young players take longer to acquire consistency, especially on the defensive side, and when they play more challenging minutes against top competition. The more the season advances, the greater the demands placed on them, too. Teams have now tightened up their systems. While at the start of the season Suzuki and Kotkaniemi could capitalize on breakdowns, find space, and take a looser approach to defence, now they can’t.

The second half of the season is a game of inches. Apart from the Ottawa Senators, every team in the North Division will be competing for a playoff spot. Every mistake will be magnified and every lesser performance could drag the team down. The young centres lived through the pressure of a playoff bubble, but this is their first time going through the grind of having to help carry a team to the post-season — in a shortened schedule no less. The experience is a hard, but necessary one if they are to establish themselves as the pivots of Montreal’s future.