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Canada

In the Habs' Room: Kotkaniemi 'has gotten better every day,' Julien says

TORONTO — Artturi Lehkonen speaks from experience when he talks about the difficulty of making the jump from hockey In Finland to the NHL.

“It’s not easy,” said Lehkonen, who moved from his home in Finland to play two seasons in Sweden before making his NHL debut as a 21-year-old.

Lehkonen’s experience gives him a unique perspective on the pay of Canadiens rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who is pushing for a spot on the Canadiens’ roster a  few months after his 18th birthday.

“The one thing that impresses me the most is his maturity,” Lehkonen said after the Canadiens defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-1 Monday night.

Lehkonen and defence hopeful Xavier Ouellet led the Montreal offence with two goals each, but a lot of attention was where it has been for most of the training camp — on Kotkaniemi.

“My goal is to play in the NHL this year,” Kotkaniemi said after another solid game. He has dressed for four of the Canadiens’ five preseason games and coach Claude Julien commented on his progression.

“He’s gotten better every day,” said Julien. “He’s a young player who was trying to find his way the first two games of the rookie tournament but he was better every day (and) with better players and more experience he’s starting to show even more.”

“Anyone who plays well and is young like him and like Nick Suzuki, we’re looking at lot of young players and that bodes well for the future,” said Julien. “There’s some guys who are making our decisions tougher.”

Kotkaniemi had an assist against the Leafs but he was plus-3 on the night and earned some bonus points from the coach when he stood in front and screened goaltender Garrett Sparks on Ouellet’s second goal of the night.

“He goes to those tough areas,” said Julien. “He’s not afraid to get his nose dirty. One thing we know with him is he’s going to get stronger as he gets older.”

Kotkaniemi said one of his goals is to get better in 1-on-1 battles along the boards. He won five of his 12 faceoffs (42 per cent) and registered a hit and a blocked shot. It’s likely he’ll dress for at least one of the two final preseason games before Julien makes a decision on his immediate future.

Lehkonen scored both of his goals on rebounds in front of the net but he said he was pleased with the way the Canadiens are using their speed to create chances on offence.

Ouellet scored twice on shots from the point and said he was seeing the results of a productive offseason.

“I had a good summer and I came to camp with the idea of having fun,” said Ouellet, who was a free agent after the Detroit Red Wings decided not to re-sign him.

“He’s helped himself to win a spot and the worst scenario is he becomes a guy you can rely on as a call-up,” said Julien. “Right now, he’s battling to make this team. Goals are one thing and I think he had two great shots but we need to evaluate him on more than that, and that’s what we’re trying to do here, look at the whole package.”

Ouellet finished as a game-high plus-4, had three hits and blocked two shots.

Antti Niemi solidified his spot as Carey Price’s backup with a solid 29-save performance. He was the difference in the first period when he stopped all 18 shots he faced while his teammates produced two goals on 12 shots.

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