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Kotkaniemi gives Canadiens something to be excited about

Montreal Canadiens fans haven’t had much to cheer about lately.

It makes sense, then, that Jesperi Kotkaniemi experienced the sort of ovation he’ll never forget after scoring a goal on his first shot in his first pre-season NHL game.

Kotkaniemi flashed some of the brilliance – not to mention a big, affable smile – that made him the third pick of the 2018 NHL Draft on the play. Not only did he manage to handle a rolling puck and send it into the net, but he also showed poise in shaking off a hard hit while making a pass that really got things rolling.

“That was sick,” a giggly Kotkaniemi told the media after Montreal’s 3-1 preseason win against New Jersey Monday night. “I’ve never heard a crowd that loud. It was pretty unbelievable.”

Habs fans clearly relished that moment, lavishing Kotkaniemi with additional praise once he was announced as the game’s third star:

Canadiens head coach Claude Julien underscored the on-ice adjustment Kotkaniemi faces as an 18-year-old with limited exposure to NHL-sized rinks and NHL-sized players (whom he compared to “superheroes”).

“He’s still a junior player to a lot of people’s eyes, and this is North American hockey on a smaller rink,” Julien said, via Sportsnet’s Eric Engels. “We play a much more aggressive style than they do where he’s from. But, again, I think you have to appreciate the way he handled himself tonight in the game and showed his skill level. He showed his patience. He’s also learning on the fly and I think he’s getting better and better on a daily basis. So it’s encouraging to see how well he’s doing so far.”

[Montreal mismanagement: Canadiens wasted opportunity with Max Pacioretty]

It would be a steep learning curve for any player, but the transition overseas is unlikely to be smooth. The Athletic’s Arpon Basu notes (sub. required) that Kotkaniemi really hadn’t seen on-ice fights until last night, and didn’t really know how to conduct himself during pre-game warm-ups.

Even so, there are those positive moments, and early feedback – including from Julien himself – that Kotkaniemi’s skating might be better than advertised.

So, would the Canadiens (and Kotkaniemi) be better off if the Finnish forward makes an immediate jump to the NHL, or would it be better if he continued to polish his game before burning off a year from his entry-level deal?

Well, it’s complicated.

Center of attention

On Monday, Kotkaniemi basked in the thrill of being the apple of the crowd’s eye.

Still, if we’ve noted anything about hockey-obsessed markets, it’s that the “honeymoon period” can be short-lived in a place like Montreal. Growing pains are probable whenever a young player makes the jump, yet throwing Kotkaniemi into the deep end right off the bat could only expose a lack of polish that much more.

Such a decision would run the risk of shaking Kotkaniemi’s confidence.

There’s another factor not unlike Filip Zadina possibly soothing some pain in Detroit: a reasonably productive and promising Kotkaniemi could give Canadiens fans a sorely needed bright side to look on. The Max Pacioretty trade – not to mention picking third – sent at least a partial rebuild message, so if 2018-19 is as rough on the ice as it is on paper, it might be nice to glimpse some of the light at the end of the tunnel.

The bottom line is that, at some point, the pressure will really rise on Kotkaniemi to be the Canadiens’ long-sought-after high-end center. Considering how short the fuse can be when it comes to Marc Bergevin assessing a player’s usefulness in that regard, it could be a cruel test for the Finn.

Cautionary tales

The modern NHL treasures speed, skill, and smarts. Sometimes that translates into young players managing instant success, as we saw with Nico Hischier being a quick study after a splendid jump from being the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

There are some examples of the immediate jump going wrong, or at least being handled poorly, and you can look at some recent third picks as warnings for Montreal.

Alex Galchenyuk – Like Kotkaniemi, Galchenyuk was a could-be center (and could be one in Arizona) who Montreal selected third overall. In the case of “Chucky,” it was the third pick in 2012.

Galchenyuk jumped right from that 2012 draft to the 2012-13 season, at least once the lockout dissipated. He played in all 48 regular-season games (and five playoff contests), acquitting himself quite nicely.

Yet, patience wasn’t in great supply for the talented forward, as Bergevin shut the door emphatically on Galchenyuk’s bid to be a center, and the atmosphere sure felt toxic pretty quickly.

Would Galchenyuk’s game been more well-rounded if he didn’t make the jump right away? Was stepping from the draft to the pressure cooker of Montreal hockey an example of “too much, too soon?”

In my opinion, it’s absurd to look at Galchenyuk as a failure. That said, the Canadiens failed to handle his situation properly, and it’s unclear if Bergevin & Co. truly learned from their mistakes. Rushing Kotkaniemi into the NHL could end up being an unpleasant example of history repeating.

Jesse Puljujarvi – While Kotkaniemi was a mild surprise in rising to the third pick, plenty were surprised that fellow Finn Puljujarvi slipped below the third choice, instead going fourth overall in 2016.

It’s far too early for this to be a permanent judgment, but at the moment, the Blue Jackets’ bold decision to go with Pierre Luc-Dubois instead may end up being the correct call.

Either way, it’s been a bumpy ride for Puljujarvi, and a considerable portion of the blame falls on the Edmonton Oilers, an organization that hasn’t exactly developed the greatest track record of handling all but the most can’t-miss of prospects. (They haven’t messed up Connor McDavid, although they’ve blundered spectacularly when it comes to giving him help.)

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Puljujarvi burned a year off his entry-level contract by making an immediate jump in 2016-17, a move that proved to be ill-fated, as he was demoted to the AHL. He’s spent the past two seasons going between the AHL and NHL, with some legitimate concerns about stunted growth.

Even if Puljujarvi pulls out the sort of season that would justify his draft placement, the Oilers have already squandered most of his rookie contract. Edmonton’s essentially written the blueprint on how not to handle Kotkaniemi in the form of his countryman Puljujarvi.

The North American Game

Although the above scenarios inspire some fear of mishandling Kotkaniemi, the Habs could theoretically see some advantages in keeping him around, even if his 2018-19 season isn’t a smash success.

As mentioned before, Kotkaniemi hasn’t experienced much exposure to the North American game. The Canadiens might reason that he’d be better off not returning to Finland for this next campaign, then.

***

With plenty of cap space and a lot of forwards under contract (according to Cap Friendly’s listings), it’s not as though the Canadiens badly need to get solid production from a cheap rookie contract. If expectations are as low in-house as they are on the streets of Montreal, then sliding the first year of Kotkaniemi’s entry-level deal to 2019-20 might be a lot more prudent.

Overall, there are some notable pros and cons to Kotkaniemi making the immediate jump, so the Canadiens better look before they leap.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stanley Cup Final: Blues vs. Bruins full schedule, TV info

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The St. Louis Blues have eliminated the San Jose Sharks in six games, and now the the 2019 Stanley Cup Final matchup is set.

Beginning with Game 1 on Monday, May 27 at TD Garden, the Blues will battle the Boston Bruins.

If a Game 7 is needed, it will take place on Wednesday, June 12, in Boston at 8 p.m. ET.

The Bruins are playing in their first Stanley Cup Final since 2013 and are trying to win it for the first time since 2011. The Blues went to the Cup Final in each of their first three years in the NHL, with their last appearance coming in 1970. They are looking for their first championship.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Here is the complete schedule for the entire series

(All times ET, subject to change).

GAME 1 
Monday, May 27: St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins | 8 p.m. ET, NBC

GAME 2

Wednesday, May 29: St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins | 8 p.m. ET,  NBCSN

GAME 3

Saturday, June 1: Boston Bruins at St. Louis Blues | 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN

GAME 4

Monday, June 3: Boston Bruins at St. Louis Blues | 8 p.m. ET, NBC

*GAME 5

Thursday, June 6: St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins | 8 p.m. ET, NBC

*GAME 6

Sunday, June 9: Boston Bruins at St. Louis Blues | 8 p.m. ET, NBC

*GAME 7

Wednesday, June 12: St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins | 8 p.m. ET, NBC

*If necessary

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Playoff Buzzer: Blues reach first Stanley Cup Final since 1970

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  • For the first time since 1970, the Blues are going to the Stanley Cup Final. Remarkably, they’ll face the same opponent in the Bruins. To make it to Round 4, they had to dispatch the Sharks, which they managed in Game 6 on Tuesday.

St. Louis Blues 5, San Jose Sharks 1 (Blues win series 4-2; 2019 Stanley Cup Final begins on Monday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC [full schedule and TV info])

Once again, the Blues raced off to a hot start, with David Perron giving them a 1-0 lead just 1:32 into Game 6. They ended the first period up 2-0, and while the Sharks put up a stubborn fight on Tuesday, it didn’t really feel like the contest was ever in doubt. Any time the Sharks seemed to push to make things closer, the Blues either stomped out their scoring chances or scored a gut-punch of a goal. San Jose simply ran out of gas, although St. Louis would argue that it was because they emptied the Sharks’ tank.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Ryan O'Reilly

“ROR” generated three assists in Game 6, and none of those helpers came on the empty-net goal.

It was a strong all-around effort from O’Reilly even beyond the scoring, as he finished Game 6 with a +2 rating, went 12-6 on faceoffs, and delivered a hit during 18:28 TOI. O’Reilly had been kept off of the scoreboard for three consecutive games, so this is a nice outburst for the two-way center as he readies for what’s sure to be some tough matchups as St. Louis pivots to preparing for the Boston Bruins.

2. Jordan Binnington

Thanks to some great play from the likes of Colton Parayko, the Blues were mostly able to keep the battered Sharks to the perimeter. There wasn’t a whole lot of room to work with, which remains consistent to the way St. Louis has played for most of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and really how the Blues have played for the last few months.

Binnington’s steady presence in net is the number one reason that can work, though.

For most of the third period, the Blues sat on what began as a 3-1 lead, while the Sharks desperately pushed for goals by way of a 10-3 shots on goal advantage during the final 20 minutes. None of their attempts worked well enough to bring them back into the game, as Binnington ended the night making 25 out of 26 saves, including some key late stops against Evander Kane and especially Logan Couture.

Can the remarkable rookie win the goalie duel against Tuukka Rask? It figures to be one of his toughest tests yet.

3. David Perron

This was a great team effort for the Blues, making it tempting to place someone like Parayko as one of the three stars.

Yet, it’s worth mentioning Perron, particularly since he’s one of those forwards who keeps putting up points, yet continues to be overlooked. Perron helped the Golden Knights make it to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, and now he’s back in Round 4 during his latest run with the Blues.

Perron finished Game 6 with a goal and a primary assist, with his goal being especially important. Again, it was the 1-0 tally very early on, allowing the Blues to nurse (and enhance) another 1-0 lead quickly into a contest. The Blues are tough enough to score against when all things are even, but become even more oppressive when they have a lead. This is now the fifth time they’ve scored a goal within the first two minutes of a game during this run, and the Blues are 5-0 in those games.

Bigger names like O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Jaden Schwartz have been heating up lately, but Perron is the type of player who might be able to swing what could be a tightly matched series versus the Bruins.

Factoids

Game 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final takes place in Boston at 8 p.m. ET on Monday. Click here for the full schedule and TV info.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blues move to Stanley Cup Final after sinking Sharks

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The last time the St. Louis Blues made it to a Stanley Cup Final, it was all the way back in 1969-1970. They were swept by the Boston Bruins during that long-ago visit, with Bobby Orr’s famous leaping goal putting a bow on things. So, the current-day Blues hope that this … “rematch” goes far better.

To get this far, the Blues had to beat the San Jose Sharks, the team that most recently knocked them out of a Round 3 series back in 2015-16.

An injured Sharks team just didn’t have enough to push through the bruising Blues in Game 6 on Tuesday, as St. Louis won 5-1 to win the series 4-2. With that, the Blues will take on what’s sure to be a well-rested (maybe too rested?) Bruins team in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

An empty-netter inflated the score in Game 6, and Tyler Bozak‘s 4-1 insurance tally happened fairly late in the proceedings, so this one was pretty close at times. That said, the Sharks ultimately only got so close before the Blues pulled far ahead.

Game 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final takes place in Boston at 8 p.m. ET on Monday. Click here for the full schedule and TV info.

Tough start, and finish, for Sharks

Being without Joe Pavelski, Erik Karlsson, and Tomas Hertl was already a tough way for San Jose to start Game 6, and didn’t really get better from there, as David Perron deflected a puck past Martin Jones to make it 1-0 for St. Louis just 1:32 in. Things looked pretty dire for the Sharks heading into the first intermission, after Vladimir Tarasenko‘s power-play goal made it 2-0.

Credit the Sharks for continuing to fight, but credit the Blues for taking it to the Sharks to give San Jose little hope of actually winning that fight.

Dylan Gambrell ended up being one of the Sharks who drew into action thanks to all of those injuries, so he made for a great story by scoring his first NHL goal in his first playoff game. The Sharks embraced that added life, briefly, as Logan Couture almost scored before Colton Parayko cleared the puck from Jordan Binnington‘s crease. But it remained 2-1, and Gambrell’s goal ended up being a fun footnote instead of a turning point.

Not long after that brief surge, the Blues got their two-goal lead right back. Brayden Schenn‘s been agonizingly close to scoring for a while now, so he was clearly relieved when he scored the 3-1 goal on the power play. Maybe that goal drought explains the creativity of Schenn’s sword-sheathing celebration?

Blues, Binnington shut the door

It wasn’t just Schenn who was struggling to score late in this series. The Sharks, as a team, were just as cold when it came to piercing the Blues’ defense, and during the rare moments when they found space, Binnington was usually up to the task.

The Blues were clearly content to sit on their 3-1 lead during the third period, and Binnington made sure that such a strategy worked out. He made some tremendous saves against Evander Kane and Logan Couture, including stopping Couture on a semi-breakaway, earning a big cheer from an appreciative crowd in St. Louis.

The Blues won Game 4 by a score of 2-1, then handed the Sharks a disastrous 5-0 defeat in Game 5. So, during these last three games, San Jose only managed two goals overall. Heading into the postseason, it seemed like Martin Jones would be the problem if the Sharks fell short. While Jones faced his highs and lows, the Sharks’ seemingly explosive lineup simply ran out of firepower.

***

Now, the Sharks must face an uncertain offseason with Erik Karlsson, Pavelski, Joe Thornton, and Gustav Nyquist heading toward unrestricted free agency. As much as this run has been about the likes of Hertl and Timo Meier (a pending RFA) emerging as the future of the Sharks alongside Couture, the Sharks’ path ahead seems a little murky. This was a memorable and exciting run for the Sharks, yet it ends with that all-too-familiar empty feeling.

The Blues, meanwhile, face a straightforward future, but one that likely brings plenty of bumps in the road. Beat the Bruins and win that first-ever Stanley Cup, or repeat decades-old history.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins will scrimmage to stay sharp for Stanley Cup Final

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BOSTON (AP) — The Boston Bruins think they’ve found a way to stay sharp for the Stanley Cup Final while waiting a total of 10 days between games.

The Eastern Conference champions will hold a public intrasquad scrimmage on Thursday night, and coach Bruce Cassidy said he’ll try to maintain a regular game-day schedule so that the players will get back in the routine before the opener of the championship series on Monday.

”We’ve got some ideas we bandied around. We came up with this one,” Cassidy said on Tuesday, the Bruins’ fifth day off since sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes in the East finals. ”We’ve had good practices, but this will be a little bit different.”

The Bruins needed seven games to dispatch the Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening round, then had one day off before starting the second round against Columbus. They finished off the Blue Jackets in six games, and had two days to rest before Game 1 against the Hurricanes.

But that series ended Thursday, and the Bruins haven’t even had an opponent to prepare for yet. The St. Louis Blues took a 3-2 lead into Game 6 against the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday night.

”If St. Louis wins … we can start a little bit of that prep for special teams,” Cassidy said. ”If not, we’ll just go through the basics.”

Cassidy said last week he would reach out to other teams to get pointers on how to handle long layoffs. Among them: the New England Patriots, who routinely have a first-round bye, in addition to a two-week break before the Super Bowl.

The Bruins coach said on Tuesday that he touched base with all of the teams in town, as well as some of the Boston players from the 2011 and ’13 teams that went to the Final and other NHL coaches who have had long breaks. But he declined to share their advice.

”We’ll take what we thought was relevant to us and go from there,” Cassidy said, acknowledging that a seven-game series is different than preparing for a Super Bowl. ”In the first game, we want to be good. We want to be sharp. We want to be on time. We want to win. But we have a bit more luxury than say a one-and-done.”

The scrimmage will be two, 25-minute periods, with two officials on the ice. But some rules will be ignored in the interest of situational drills and keeping everyone healthy.

Cassidy said he may create a four-on-four situation as well as a six-on-five for a potential end-of-game, pulled goalie scenario. The checking line will face off against the top line, and players might switch teams to get the matchups Cassidy wants to work on.

Individual players, including goalie Tuukka Rask, will decide how much they want to play.

The winning team will earn … something.

”They will put something on the line,” Cassidy said. ”That’s something I have to discuss with them. I think that’s important. What it is it could be something very minimal, or whatever it is they want to decide.”

Other than that, the coach said he will be happy if everyone comes out of the scrimmage healthy. He said it will be no different than practice, when players know not to check their teammates, but because of the increased stakes, he will talk to the team about it.

”This isn’t a physicality contest out there. It’s compete on pucks. It’s play with some pace,” he said. ”I think we’re smart enough. That will be the message I relay to some of the younger guys: We’re doing this for a reason. But the reason is not to injure anybody.”

Fans can attend Thursday’s scrimmage for $20, and park for $10; popcorn will be free for children. Proceeds will go to the Boston Bruins Foundation.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports