In this week’s Montreal Canadiens News & Rumors, we’ll look at youngsters Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki who played a pivotal role in the Habs’ series win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, while Claude Julien was also a big reason they earned a spot in the 2020 Playoffs.
A playoff berth means the Habs will lose out on the NHL Draft’s top prospect, Alexis Lafrenière and won’t pick higher than 16th in the opening round. Plus, we’ll look at Alex Belzile’s inspiring story, who made his NHL debut at 28 years old and we’ll look ahead to Montreal’s first-round encounter with the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Kids Are All Right
Canadiens’ head coach Claude Julien said it best in his post-game press conference after Game 4 about his two young centremen Kotkaniemi and Suzuki:
“Without the contribution of our young players, I don’t think I’m sitting here today having won this series. Those two players made such a difference.”
The pair combined for three goals and four points in the series, contributions made even more important by the fact that the Canadiens didn’t get a goal from their regular -season co-scoring leaders Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar.
Not to mention that Kotkaniemi and Suzuki got the better of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two of the best centremen in the NHL. Their excellent play should help ease the disappointment of fans whose team is no longer in the running for Quebec native, Lafrenière.
“Those guys took huge steps. Even through the pause over three months they’ve gotten even better. I’m not sure how it would look playing games, but they obviously did work at home—whether it’s off the ice or skating. They’ve definitely gotten better and it’s a big, big help for us,” Shea Weber said of Kotkaniemi and Suzuki.
Claude Julien Outcoached Mike Sullivan
Julien has received his fair share of criticism this season, and with good reason, but Montreal’s head coach deserves a lot of credit for his work behind the bench throughout their play-in series.
He made line adjustments that paid big dividends, especially moving his top centres around and boldly splitting up his top line of Tatar, Phillip Danault and Gallagher, a trio that was so effective in the regular season, to give more responsibility to Kotkaniemi and Suzuki.
Julien also successfully protected his inexperienced third defence pair of Victor Mete and Xavier Ouellet, the spot in the lineup that many thought would be the Canadiens’ Achilles heel in the series but turned out to be the Penguins’. Pittsburgh’s third pairing of Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz was on the ice for almost every goal against.
As Arpon Basu of The Athletic put it: “Sullivan was outcoached in this series. There should be no doubt about that. Julien made adjustments, he fine-tuned his system to account for the elite talent on the other side, and he limited the ice time of his third defence pairing,” (from ‘The Canadiens’ X-factor against the Penguins was behind the bench’, The AthleticNHL – 08/07/20).
The Canadiens Lose Out on Alexis Lafrenière
The Canadiens won’t be included in Monday’s NHL Draft Lottery for the chance to select Alexis Lafrenière with the no. 1 overall pick. Instead, they will hold the no. 16 pick unless they reach the Eastern Conference Final.
While it would have been something special to have a Quebec-born star suit up for the Habs, or even add another top-10 pick to Montreal’s growing prospect pool, but they’ll still get a very good player at no. 16. Let’s not forget that they drafted Big Ten Freshman of the Year Cole Caufield with the 15th pick in 2019.
Plus, the playoff experience gained by the young players on the team in the Toronto bubble cannot be overstated and may prove to be even more valuable in the long run than adding another top prospect to the fold.
Bring on the Philadelphia Flyers
The Canadiens will face the Flyers in the first round after Philadelphia went undefeated in the round-robin tournament to claim the no. 1 seed in the East.
In a repeat of the 2010 Eastern Conference Final, it will be Julien against former Habs head coaches Alain Vigneault and Michel Therrien while goaltender Carter Hart will go up against his idol Carey Price. The Flyers won two of the three meetings between the teams in the regular season both in overtime. The Habs won their game 4-1 in mid-January.
Montreal will have their hands full with the Flyers’ depth, hard-nosed style, and great goaltending. Even though they just upset the Penguins, Julien knows they will have to play even better to advance.
“We have to prepare to play, in my estimation, the best team in the Eastern Conference right now by their play,” Julien said. “(The Flyers) have more balance, they might be a little bit deeper. They have four lines and six defencemen and a good young goaltender. At the end of the day, you have to be ready to play 60 minutes if you’re going to have success.” (from ‘Claude Julien says Flyers are best team in the East right now’, Montreal Gazette, Aug 10, 2020)
While the Flyers are a tough matchup, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are the no. 2 seed, with their superior speed and skill would have been even more of a mismatch for Montreal.
The Inspiring Story of Alex Belzile
Alex Belzile is the definition of a journeyman. He’s also a pro’s pro with a great attitude and an even better story. After going undrafted, he played 168 games in the ECHL, 239 games in the AHL and made his NHL debut for the Canadiens, his childhood team, during Game 4 against Pittsburgh, three weeks shy of his 29th birthday.
Belzile, who was selected for the 2019 AHL All-Star Game while playing for the Laval Rocket, missed six months of action this season because of a pectoral injury. He was healthy enough to take part in Montreal’s Phase 3 training camp and made the team’s bubble roster. He played in the Canadiens’ exhibition tilt against the Toronto Maple Leafs but was forced to leave the game due to injury after being checked hard into the boards by Jake Muzzin. It was unclear whether he would be able to return to the lineup during the postseason, but he finally lived his NHL dream.
“I get to do what I love in life. It’s why I won’t ever stop. But every day I get to the arena I have a goal: I am going to get better,” said Belzile.
Belzile has been an inspiration to his teammates everywhere he’s played and continues to be with the Canadiens.
What’s Next for the Habs
We were wondering how far the Canadien’s “us against the world” mentality would take them this postseason. So far, it’s helped them pull off a major upset, earned them an unexpected playoff berth and it has brought out the best in their young stars. Can the underdogs pull another rabbit out of their hat against the Flyers? We’ll find out starting Wednesday but if the play-in round taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected come playoff time.
Melissa has been covering the Montreal Canadiens for The Hockey Writers since March of 2020. She is also THW’s Social Media & Marketing Manager as well as co-host of Chicks & Sticks, a weekly show produced by THW. In 2006, she spearheaded the social media initiatives for Tennis Canada and Rogers Cup and was the primary person responsible for their upkeep for over 10 years. She has written articles for multiple tennis websites and interviewed the likes of Roger Federer and Serena Williams. While her career in sports started in tennis, her first love has always been hockey. She has a journalism degree from Concordia University.