NEW YORK—Artturi Lehkonen set himself up just high enough in the slot to go unmarked.
There he stood, enjoying the breathing room you rarely get in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and there he remained just long enough to uncork the shot that gave him the first goal of his playoff career. That marker would give his Montreal Canadiens a lead they never surrendered in their 3-1 win at Madison Square Garden in Game 3 of their series with the New York Rangers Rangers.
You have to wonder how much longer the plucky Finn, who scored 18 goals in the regular season, can continue to fly under the radar in this series, which the Canadiens now lead 2-1.
"He goes quietly about his business," said Canadiens defenceman Jordie Benn on Monday. "He’s very good at getting lost on the ice—if you understand that aspect. If you don’t keep an eye on him, he’s going to end up back door and tapping the puck in.
"He’s one of those guys you don’t see too much, but when you do see him he’s electric out there."
It’s an apt description of how Lehkonen, who was drafted 55th overall in 2013, has contributed to Montreal’s success thus far.
He’s made a subtle but tangible impact in all three games by using his speed effectively on the forecheck, by withstanding the physical punishment of 299 hits thrown between both teams in this series, and by making the type of responsible plays at both blue lines that suggest he’s wise beyond his years.
When he did finally emerge from the shadows to score, it was a beautiful wrist shot that kissed the top right corner of the mesh behind Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
It’s clear that this situation—playing on the world’s biggest stage and under its brightest lights—hasn’t overwhelmed the 21-year-old rookie.
"I feel comfortable," Lehkonen said after Sunday’s game. "I’m just trying to do the best job I can out there and make sure I make the right play at the right time. I’m taking it one game at a time and not getting too far ahead of myself."
That’s the mark of maturity.
"He just seems to have that personality that not too much fazes him," Canadiens coach Claude Julien said. "He’s excited about playing. I’ve said that before, he’s a smart player and he’s just reinforcing that statement I made about him by being what he is in the playoffs right now. He’s calm, he’s cool, he’s making good plays and he certainly is playing like a veteran again in the playoffs."
Lehkonen had gained some pedigree in his three appearances at the world junior hockey championship, helping Finland to a gold medal in 2015. He had also collected a lot of valuable experience before coming over to the NHL in September.
"He’s a really intelligent hockey player," said Rangers forward Derek Stepan, who played with Lehkonen as a member of the KalPa Kuopio in the Finnish SM-Liiga when the NHL had locked out its players in 2012. "He’s got a great wrist shot, and he’s got a knack for the net and a lot of skill. But definitely, the thing that stands out is how intelligent and how smart he is on the ice."
Lehkonen showed it in his two seasons with Frolunda of the Swedish League, too. Had it not been for his 11-goal, eight-assist performance in 16 playoff games, which broke a club record held by Daniel Alfredsson and helped his team capture a championship last spring, he might not be thriving as he is today.
There’s little doubt he’s emerged as a player to watch out for as this series moves along.
"I think we gotta pay attention to their whole group, but we certainly have to pay attention to him," said Stepan. "He’s a guy that can shoot, and if you give him room to do it and he’s in a scoring area, he’s going to make it tough on [Lundqvist]."