With the Pittsburgh Penguins in the rearview mirror, perhaps it’s finally time we gave Montreal Canadiens head coach Claude Julien some credit with how he’s deployed his young players.
Since his days in Boston, Julien has developed a reputation for not liking young players in his lineup. But following the Habs’ impressive series victory over the Penguins, there are two young players, Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who shone like future stars all because Julien trusted them.
And he paid them the ultimate compliment following the series’ conclusion in his postgame press conference Friday evening.
“Honestly, if we didn’t have these contributions from these young players I’m not certain I’d be here right now, or to have won this series,” Julien said.
Both players produced on both sides of the puck in the series. Kotkaniemi scored twice, while Suzuki scored an added an assist, in four games.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi gets his second goal of the postseason, great work by Lehkonen to get this puck to the net. pic.twitter.com/HeV7H9MZcX— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) August 4, 2020
Beautiful snipe from Nick Suzuki for his first career playoff goal pic.twitter.com/Pe2MAaC2lF— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) August 2, 2020
Both players were also tasked with matching up against the Penguins’ best players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. While Crosby scored twice in the series and added an assist, he was held off the scoresheet in Game 4 — on his birthday, no less. Malkin, however, was largely ineffective. He got an assist in Game 3 on a Patric Hornqvist power-play goal, and save for some shots on net, he failed to provide the necessary offence the team needed to hang with the Canadiens.
The kids, specifically Suzuki, even got the better of a wily veteran like defenceman Kris Letang by stealing a puck from him off the blueline before speeding up ice for a scoring chance.
“It’s fun to watch,” team captain Shea Weber said. “Everybody talked before this series about how much more experience (Pittsburgh) had than us. I almost thought it was kind of a good thing maybe these young guys didn’t even realize how big of a deal it was. They stepped up, (the) guys played really well against two of the top centres in the league.”
The series victory does take the Canadiens out of the running for the No. 1 overall pick. While fans may be disappointed their team won’t have a chance at drafting a local product in Alexis Lafreniere, the team’s young core will value the playoff experience they will accumulate over the next few days.
Not that Lafreniere wouldn’t have helped, but the fact that players can say they’ve gotten out of jams like a two-goal deficit midway through Game 3 will go a long way in their development. One of the players who got the Canadiens out of the hole was 25-year old Jonathan Drouin, who may not be so young in comparison to Suzuki and Kotkaniemi but is still currently part of the younger core of the team.
It’s something veterans like Brendan Gallagher can appreciate.
“That’s what these playoffs are about,” Gallagher said after Game 3. “We’re playing arguably the most experienced team in the league and we’re learning. We’re going through these growing pains and for us to have that attitude where it wasn’t going to affect our game. We thought we were still playing pretty good hockey. For our team to respond that way, that’s a pretty good sign going forward.”
By the way, if we’re still okay with considering 25 years old as young enough, that’s the age of Artturi Lehkonen, who scored the game-winning goal in Game 4.
Of course, some younger players like Victor Mete could still use some confidence. It remains to be seen how another youngster, Jake Evans, could get more playing time after an injury knocked him out of Game 3. But as the team prepares to take on the top seed in the NHL playoffs, it’s clear they’ll be riding their younger players (and even their slightly older ones) as much as their playoff-savvy veterans.
“We’re a young team, we had some areas that during the season you want to see improve. We’ve got an opportunity in the playoffs to come and play under pressure situations. And what I’ve liked about our team is how we’ve handled it,” Julien said.
“Whether it’s ignorance from a young group that doesn’t know any better. I know (John Tortorella) used a different term the other day. We’re believing in ourselves, we’re having fun with it. I think we’re enjoying success that we’re having right now. But we also know that the next round will be against a top-seeded team and we’re going to have to be even better.”
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