MONTREAL—With his stick holstered and his fist pumped, Artturi Lehkonen took a deep breath and skated over to the bench to celebrate his first goal in 96 days.
He got the pass from Nikita Scherbak on a second-period power play, pulled it from backhand to forehand and lifted it over Ottawa Senators goaltender Mike Condon in one swift motion to give the Montreal Canadiens a 2-1 lead in Sunday’s game.
"I wasn’t sure it went in at first, but once I realized it had I can tell you it felt f***ing great," Lehkonen told Sportsnet after the reporters and cameras had largely dispersed from his dressing room stall post-game.
He felt just the same about his second goal of the game, scored a little less than 11 minutes later, when he cruised down the middle of the ice and deposited a gift from linemate Tomas Plekanec to give the Canadiens a 3-1 lead they later turned into a 4-1 win.
It was an easy goal. More of them should’ve been in the offing this season for this 22-year-old kid who earned pedigree as an elite goal scorer as a junior in Finland—and later as a kid playing in the Swedish Hockey League. Many thought this would be a breakout season for Lehkonen, who came to Montreal last year and scored 18 goals under the bright lights—and all the pressure that comes with being a highly touted prospect for the Canadiens. He was absolutely electric in the six-game playoff loss to the New York Rangers last spring, showing potential that had him earmarked for a role on the team’s top line at the start of October.
But things proved to be anything but easy for Lehkonen over the last few months.
A crippling back injury he suffered early on and played through until the pain forced him out of the lineup for 16 games from Nov. 11-Dec. 22 had much to do with the fact that he was limited to just two goals through his first 18 games. Bad luck was a factor, too, with Lehkonen producing the most high-danger scoring chances on the Canadiens over that stretch, according to naturalstattrick.com.
Playing catch up after an extended period on the injured list added another layer of adversity, pushing Lehkonen through the longest scoring drought he can recall.
"I tried to keep a positive attitude, keep working as hard as you can and try to get yourself into the games," said Lehkonen. "There’s no other way."
Easier said than done.
"He wasn’t 100 per cent, for sure, so it was definitely a factor," said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. "We held him back and then he comes back and like the [Canadiens defenceman David] Schlemkos (who missed the first two months of the season with a hand injury) of this world, or even [Canadiens forward Alex] Galchenyuk last year (who missed six weeks with a knee injury), when you’re out for a while it’s not easy to come back and all of a sudden expect to be playing at the same pace you would before you left."
But that was the situation Lehkonen faced.
He leaned on Plekanec—who notched his 600th NHL point on Lehkonen’s second goal and snapped his own 24-game goal drought in the third period—for support. Injured forward Andrew Shaw and injured defenceman Shea Weber had lent some as well.
But in the end, it was Lehkonen who looked within himself to achieve a different result.
"I came into this game loose, trying to be loose," he said. "I think I was doing all the right things but was so tense about the chances I was missing. It’s crazy how I could score two goals in 10 minutes after not being able to get one in for so long, but if you’re loose things like that happen."
Julien believed the dam would break eventually. He continued to trot out Lehkonen for top-nine minutes, continued to put him on the power play, and continued to speak with him and keep him in a good head space.
"I felt that he had some chances, they weren’t going in, and at one point it was, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it? You’ve got to find a way to finish,’" said the coach. "He kept a the right attitude and then I guess just by working hard and continuing to do those things, eventually they start going in."
If that happens for Lehkonen with more frequency, you can’t help but wonder how high he can reach.
It’s no small thing that Julien, shortly after taking over coaching duties from Michel Therrien on Valentine’s Day last year, compared Lehkonen to a young Loui Eriksson.
It was after a couple of marginal offensive seasons that Eriksson strung together four consecutive seasons of 25 goals or more with the Dallas Stars. He built himself a steady career as an elite two-way player, relied on heavily in defensive matchups in stints with the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks since leaving Dallas in 2013.
Lehkonen has shown the smarts, the work ethic and the talent to fill a similar role with Montreal.
Now it’s about rebuilding the confidence to bring his offensive game back on a level to match his defensive game.
"I know I can score, so hopefully this gets things going," Lehkonen said of Sunday’s performance.