Canadiens’ Lehkonen hoping for good health, bounces this season

Watch as Artturi Lehkonen scores shorthanded after he pokes the puck away from Jakub Voracek.

MONTREAL — You could see Montreal Canadiens forward Artturi Lehkonen’s eyes light up from a kilometre away.

The Finnish winger hopped off the bench early in Sunday’s intra-squad scrimmage, after all the hard work had already been done by his teammates, and then he drifted to the top of the right faceoff dot, prepared himself for the one-timer pass from David Schlemko, and ended up unleashing a laser that beat Carey Price high over the blocker.

“That was an absolute bomb,” said goaltender Charlie Lindgren, who watched from 180 feet away as the puck ricocheted out of the net as fast as it went in.

It was just about the easiest goal Lehkonen had scored in a calendar year, and he’s hoping there are many more of them on the way.

For Canadiens fans wondering where the goals are going to come from this season, with former 30-goal scorer Alex Galchenyuk and perennial 30-goal scorer Max Pacioretty now plying their trades for other teams, the hope has to be that Lehkonen can help pick up some of the slack.

Of course, expectations were reasonably high after Lehkonen authored an 18-goal rookie campaign in 2016-17. Consensus was that he was ready to lock down a top-six spot and contribute much more regularly on the scoreboard.

But a confluence of bad luck and a bad injury limited the 55th overall draft pick in 2013 to just 12 goals in 66 games last season.

“Obviously I have to be a lot better for our team,” Lehkonen said after standing out as one of the best players on the Bell Centre ice on Sunday. “Last year was a huge disappointment for me and our team and I’ve got to be better.”

Being in good health should help the 23-year-old with that challenge.

It was just days before arriving at Canadiens training camp last year that Lehkonen suffered the back injury that threw his start to the season off-kilter. He did whatever he could to play through the pain before it inevitably stopped him in his tracks.

“You just try not to think about it,” Lehkonen said. “It’s in the back of your head. But it is what it is, you can’t really do anything about it. And it couldn’t get any worse.”

The injury was grueling and it played its part in limiting him to just two goals in his first 18 games, eventually pushing him to the sidelines for 16 games between November and December.

The thing is, though, it hadn’t stopped him from being one of Montreal’s most dangerous players.

Luck, on the other hand, had. According to naturalstattrick.com, Lehkonen had produced more high-danger scoring chances than any other player on the Canadiens through those first 18 games. But it just seemed like no matter what he tried, the puck just wouldn’t go in for him.

“If I had the chance at a one-timer like I had [on Sunday], it was going at least two meters wide last year,” he said. “It was fun to score today, for sure. I got to tee it off in my own time. Schlemmer made a really flat pass to me and I had all the time in the world to take that one-timer and see where I wanted to put it.”

The execution was flawless.

Now Lehkonen is hoping a summer’s worth of work on his core strength and balance is going to ensure his back remains healthy, and he’s praying that luck will continue to be on his side as training camp moves along.

“I want to help the team more scoring-wise,” said Lehkonen, who skated on a line on Sunday with Nicolas Deslauriers and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. “I know I can do that, I just have to hit the net.”

It’s something he did with more frequency from February through to the end of last season, a period over which he scored 10 goals and appeared every bit as lethal as he had in Montreal’s six-game loss to the New York Rangers in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. And it’s something the Canadiens need him to do starting from Day 1 of their season.

“I feel great. I had a great summer and I’m ready to go,” said Lehkonen.

That’s good news for him — and for the Canadiens.

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