I am dubbing this game the Jesperi Kotkaniemi game.
With a two goal, three point night, Kotkaniemi not only set a new career high in goals for himself, but also led the way for the team in hits (4), takeaways (2) and faceoff percentage (60%).
But perhaps the most impressive part of his game wasn’t his offensive production, but his defensive impacts.
Rod Brind’Amour gave Kotkaniemi’s line the matchup with Winnipeg’s top line, and all night, Kotkaniemi’s line dominated them.
“KK’s done it in other games too, but I just felt that with the matchups the way they were, it was the best way to go,” Brind’Amour said. “It only gets tougher and obviously we’re shorthanded here up front so the other guys have to really step up. It’s not that you have to be that much better, it’s that you have to be really good. In different situations, they might not have played in all year, but we have to thrust guys into there because we have all these openings.”
According to NaturalStatTrick.com, the line had a 72% Corsi For percentage, a 4-1 edge in high danger chances, a 72.94% expected goals for percentage and 3-0 edge in actual goals scored.
“I just feel that when we’re on top of our game, we can play every line in the league,” Kotkaniemi said. “We’ve got a lot of skill on our line, a lot of speed and it’s hard to play against us when we’re on it.”
Now just one point shy of tying his career high in points, we are starting to see the Kotkaniemi that Carolina saw when they acquired him from Montreal.
Since the start of the new year, Kotkaniemi has 8 goals and 21 points, which is fifth most among the entire team over that span.
“Everything starts from the defense,” Kotkaniemi said You need to get the puck up out of your zone as fast as you can and offense is the best defense I feel. If you keep the puck, the other team can’t score.”
If he can consistently play at this level, the Hurricanes are still going to be a handful come playoff time.
But back to the game.
The Carolina Hurricanes needed a quick goal in this game more than any with all the adversity the team was facing.
They were shutout in back to back games and it was announced earlier in the day that star forward Andrei Svechnikov would miss the remainder of the season to have reconstructive surgery on his ACL.
If things didn’t go well tonight, the snowball effect could have been catastrophic.
“The games haven’t really gone our way the last couple before this one and then the tough news this morning, so it was good just to get a win,” Kotkaniemi said.
But the Canes got lucky and struck both quick and first as Jaccob Slavin bodied a rebound into the back of the net.
The play started out with Slavin picking off a Brendan Dillon outlet pass and he came down the middle into the slot and put a shot on David Rittich. The rebound took an even friendlier bounce as a Winnipeg stick popped it up and in it went off Slavin’s body.
It was a fairly even back and forth affair with Winnipeg hanging in with Carolina, but things started to get chippy.
The worst of it happened in the second period when Jordan Martinook was clipped knee-to-knee by Jets defenseman Dylan Samberg.
The Canes swarmed the Winnipeg defender, but the officials never blew the whistle with the scuffle going on and Martinook writhing on the ground.
Instead Dylan DeMelo took the puck up the ice from his own corner, starting a 2-on-1, but he kept it and ripped it past Frederik Andersen.
Luckily, Martinook did return not long after the hit, but whether or not he’ll be fine in the coming days is still up in the air.
“It was nice to see him come back, that’s for sure. It was kind of a double whammy because he goes down and then we kind of stop playing and then it’s in your net. You’re like, ‘Oh man...’ but at least he came back and hopefully he’s okay. We’ll find out a little more here today or tomorrow.”
But that seemed to set the Hurricanes off as, in an instant, Carolina was back ahead with Brady Skjei sniping one past Rittich.
Things started rolling from there and soon enough, Kotkaniemi extended the lead, beating Rittich on a wraparound that the netminder was completely unprepared for.
And not long after that, Stefan Noesen made Samberg answer the bell for the hit and he got the takedown on the Winnipeg blueliner.
“It takes a lot of courage to step up like that and it obviously got the bench going and the guys going,” Skjei said on Noesen’s fight. “For us to capitalize right after was definitely a turning point in the game.”
However, Winnipeg came out with a fire in the third period and Nikolaj Ehlers quickly shrank the lead to one again as he committed a little Dane-on-Dane crime, beating Andersen through the five-hole.
The Jets were pushing, but yet another defensive miscue by the Winnipeg blueliners hurt them. Noesen forced a turnover deep in the zone and set up Jack Drury in the slot for a clean look which he buried for his first goal of the season, in his first game back with the team.
“It feels good,” Drury said. “Hockey’s a funny game. It comes in waves sometimes but it was a great pass by Stef [Noesen] there and it was nice to get one.”
The Jets got one back near the end of the third period as a Carolina blown coverage left Nino Niederreiter wide open in front of the net, but the Canes held on to the end with Kotkaniemi icing the game with the empty net tally.
The Hurricanes will look to keep the ball rolling as they travel north to take on the Toronto Maple Leafs Friday night.