RALEIGH — Jesperi Kotkaniemi is just 22 years old, but on Wednesday he reached a career milestone.
The Finnish center, who scored in the Hurricanes’ 5-1 win in Game 1 of their second round series against the New Jersey Devils, played in the 50th playoff game of his NHL career.
With that, he became the 10th player in the Hurricanes’ lineup that night to have at least 50 career postseason games. Just three Devils — former Hurricanes Dougie Hamilton and Erik Haula, and longtime Lightning forward Ondrej Palat — have reached that mark. Carolina’s Brett Pesce and New Jersey’s Tomas Tatar are poised to join the ranks by the end of the series.
So how important is playoff experience?
“Just to know the ups and downs of it and how hard it is, et cetera, et cetera,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “But maybe we make a bigger deal of it than we should.”
Sometimes that experience can come from elsewhere: junior hockey, college, international play or the AHL.
“It is interesting to see how many guys that have won all the way up,” Brind’Amour said. “There’s something about learning how to win, at any level. I don’t know how much it helps at this level. But I think just knowing you’ve been through something like that before, pressure moments, I think it certainly can’t hurt you.”
It certainly hasn’t hurt Stefan Noesen and Jalen Chatfield.
The two Hurricanes have taken unconventional paths to be key pieces to Carolina’s playoff run this season.
Noesen is a 30-year-old former first round pick who struggled to carve out an NHL role in his first nine pro seasons. Outside of two years in New Jersey, when he played 113 regular season games and four more in the postseason, Noesen had spent his career bouncing between the AHL and NHL.
“Those few years of trying to find the right situation, for me, it was hard,” Noesen said. “Obviously leaving New Jersey, I had a couple of really good years in Jersey just to kind of get my career going, and to leave that situation there after … the one year we had success there, it was hard. And then finding a home after that was even harder.”
Chatfield’s path to the NHL was more linear but certainly not easy.
He was undrafted out of the OHL and played three seasons for Utica in the AHL before playing 18 games for the Canucks as part of their taxi squad in 2020-21.
The biggest thing they have in common? Both were, along with rookie Jack Drury, part of last year’s Calder Cup champions with the Hurricanes’ top affiliate, the Chicago Wolves.
“I thought last year was huge,” Chatfield, 26, said of Chicago’s run preparing him for his first NHL playoffs. “Being able to play in the postseason like we did and be able to go all the way and just kind of feel that grind and get used to what it’s going to be like out there. And it’s playoff hockey. It’s definitely different.”
Noesen, who led the AHL with 48 goals a year ago, has bounced around Carolina’s forward lines this season, most recently playing with Sebastian Aho and Seth Jarvis.
“It’s a little more playmaking, for sure, and realizing that they want to hold on the pucks and not just forecheck the whole time,” Noesen said of playing on the Hurricanes’ top line.
Neither has looked overwhelmed in important roles for a shorthanded Carolina team. Noesen is tied for second on the team in playoff points with five, four of which have come on the power play. Chatfield has settled in with trade deadline acquisition Shayne Gostisbehere on Carolina’s third defense pairing, averaging just over 14 minutes a game in the postseason.
Both credited their time with the Wolves with preparing them for making the jump to being full-time NHL players.
“Last year I was fortunate to find a home here,” Noesen said. “I know I wasn’t up here the whole time, but the way this organization plays is right up my alley. … This is exactly the organization, the place that I need to be at this point in time in my life, and I kind of wish I was here earlier. Now that I am, you don’t take it for granted.”
And the playoff moment hasn’t been too big for either, even if there were a few butterflies at the beginning of the postseason.
“Yeah, maybe a little bit to start,” Chatfield said. “But, you know, once the puck dropped, it was regular hockey.”