Canadiens’ Lehkonen hopes to draw on big-game experience to bust slump

Canadiens head coach Claude Julien says he doesn’t expect any blockbuster trades to disrupt his team’s chemistry, and doesn’t think the deadline will at all be a distraction for his group.

BROSSARD, Que. — Karel St. Laurent was loading his equipment into his car when we asked him which Montreal Canadien had the best shot he faced during his hour-long workout with the team at their south-shore practice facility.

St. Laurent, who serves as an emergency goaltender, had just finished filling in for an injured Carey Price on this November occasion, and he answered the question without hesitation.

“It’s [Artturi] Lehkonen,” the former McGill University netminder said. “Nikita Scherbak has a deceptive shot, Tomas Tatar can really shoot it, but Lehkonen has the best release.”

We’ve seen the evidence of it since the 23-year-old Finn made his debut with the Canadiens in 2016, but we haven’t seen enough of it of late. Lehkonen, who has seven goals and 24 points in 60 games this season, is in the midst of a 22-game goal drought. One he doesn’t appear any closer to cracking. And, according to his coach, it’s starting to wear on him a little bit.

“I’m sure he’s frustrated about it,” said Claude Julien after Tuesday’s morning skate. “But at the same time, he is a good penalty-killer, he does work hard, he’s very reliable five-on-five. It’s not from lack of trying, it’s from lack of producing. And we’d like for him to produce. I think that’s important for our group because we’re a better team when the scoring is spread out throughout the lineup. So, certainly, we could use some of that touch from him. At the same time, it’s not like he’s bringing nothing to the table. Thank goodness for that.”

Hours later, in a 3-2 win for the Canadiens over the Columbus Blue Jackets, Lehkonen was Montreal’s most-used penalty-killer, but he was also relegated to fourth-line duty and reduced to his lowest time-on-ice total (13:18) since he played 11:59 in a 5-2 win over the Ottawa Senators on Dec. 15. He recorded three relatively harmless shots on Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and had his best chances to score in the dying minutes of the game — when Columbus was skating with an extra attacker and an empty net.

Twice, Lehkonen came down the wing with the puck on his stick and twice he passed up a chance to ice the game and break his slump.

A day later, he was standing in the Canadiens dressing room, shaking his head as he reflected on the missed opportunity.

“It was just one of those things where I was coming and looking up, I saw [Jonathan Drouin] and I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll make the pass,’ and then I was like, ‘S–––,’” Lehkonen said after the Canadiens practised on Wednesday. “I wasn’t thinking at all in that situation, I was just doing. I know I should’ve shot it, I’m not an idiot. You got a chance to kill the game there, but I missed the pass, I turned it over, and thank god they didn’t score. And on the other one, I saw [Max] Domi was coming, so I gave it to him and figured I’d pull to the right side. That one wasn’t that bad, but the first one was bad.”

Call it a crisis of confidence for a player who’s still learning to deal with the ups and downs of NHL hockey.

Lehkonen’s a game shy of his 200th in the league and he’s been through this before. Earlier this year, he went 17 games without finding the back of the net. He was blanked off the scoresheet for 35 of his first 36 games last season, and he went through a couple of extensive slumps in a rookie season that saw him score 18 goals.

But another pattern of Lehkonen’s game is scoring late into the season, when the games get tighter and the chances are limited.

“I tend to play my best in the big games,” he said. “That’s my track record.”

That was the case in Lehkonen’s final season with the Swedish Elite League’s Frolunda HC, when he scored 11 goals in 16 playoff games and helped them win a championship. In 2016-17, a third of his goals with the Canadiens came over the final seven games of the season and he added two more in six playoff games. And last year, he scored 10 of his 12 goals from Feb. 3 to Apr. 7.

It’s something, Julien says, he hopes Lehkonen can draw confidence from.

“We’ve seen him, in the past, be able to score big goals in big games,” the coach added. “I hope it comes, because you know he has it in him.”

Lehkonen is hoping his luck will change in short order. He’s managed 127 shots this season — fifth-most on the Canadiens — but less than six per cent of them have gone in.

“I know I haven’t scored my last goal that I’m going to score in my career,” he said. “I know that I’m still going to score. It’s just trying to get it back as fast I can, trying to find the rhythm again and trying to find the confidence to put the pucks in the back of the net and not overthink it. I have to take my time with the shots and not try to be too fast with all my moves and stuff like that.”

And you can safely bet that next time Lehkonen gets a look at an empty net, he’ll shoot instead of passing.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.