I always get stuck on the “t.” It’d be a hell of a lot easier to say the name of Montreal Canadiens rookie center Jesperi Kotkaniemi (Cot-Kuh-Nee-Emmy) five times fast if it weren’t for that dang “t” at the end of the first syllable. But alas, this is everyone’s problem now—the 18-year-old third-overall pick out of Finland is only going to become more and more prominent as this season goes on.
Kotkaniemi—whom we can maybe all just call The Eagle because that’s what “Kotka” means in Finnish?—wowed desperate Canadiens fans in preseason and then had a reasonably solid October, picking up four assists. But on Thursday, he got not just one, but his first two career NHL goals in a thrilling 6-4 home win against the Capitals, while playing on a brand new “Finnish Connection” line alongside Artturi Lehkonen and Joel Armia.
The first goal opened the scoring on the night just two-and-a-half minutes into the game. Kotkaniemi’s known more for his intelligence and vision than his speed, and he doesn’t turn on the jets here, but with space on the left side during a 3-on-2 attack, the kid executes perfectly when he gets the puck, coldly finishing a short side wrister past Braden Holtby.
In the third, with time winding down and his team losing 4-3, Kotkaniemi took advantage of a defensive mistake from Dmitry Orlov, who turned it over behind his own net. Artturi Lehkonen did a good job of forcing the puck right in front of goal, and The Eagle was there to pounce on it, rising above the chaos for his second of the night.
That goal tied the game at 4, and the Habs went on to seal their two points in dramatic fashion with two goals in two seconds in the final minute of the game. (Empty netters shouldn’t count towards any record, but this was still kind of cool.) To the delight of the fans, who are enjoying a surprisingly fun 7-3-2 start from what looked to be a basement-dwelling Canadiens team, Kotkaniemi was the game’s first star.
“He’s already a (fan) favourite,” said his coach, Claude Julien. “I think everybody sees the talent that he has. I think they see the potential that he has. Right now, I can tell you he’s never looked out of place since Day 1.”
Kotkaniemi hasn’t quite taken over the league yet, but his promising start in this rookie season is beyond anything that could have been expected of a guy who was mostly seen as a long-term project on draft day. “I don’t think he’s NHL ready right now,” said Pierre McGuire after the Habs picked him. He’s ready now.