Canadiens scratching Lehkonen from win over Capitals was peculiar

Ben Chiarot scored 58 seconds into overtime and the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Washington Capitals.

WASHINGTON, D.C.— Ben Chiarot stood at his dressing room stall with an ice bag taped to his ankle.

It was the big defenceman, who’s been playing hurt for the better part of a month, who scored the overtime goal against the Washington Capitals that helped bust the Montreal Canadiens out of a five-game losing streak with a 4-3 win. He had also scored the goal that gave Montreal a 3-2 lead in the third period.

Brendan Gallagher, who was two games removed from suffering a leg injury that hampered him in a 4-3 loss to the Dallas Stars last Saturday and kept him out of a 4-3 loss to the Detroit Red Wings Tuesday, tied this game at 2-2 in the second period by willing his way through a maze of bodies and managing to push the puck past goaltender Braden Holtby while three Capitals players tried but failed to tie him up.

“He looked better,” said linemate Phillip Danault. “You could tell he’s got a little something bothering him, but he found a way to score a big goal. Another guy that’s hurt, so it’s good to see that for Gally. It’s Gally being Gally.”

Shea Weber was being Shea Weber.

It was the Montreal captain who blasted home the team’s first goal — his 14th of the season — while Gallagher stood fearlessly in Holtby’s line of sight. You know, Weber, who played 29 shifts on a bum ankle that was supposed to keep him out for four-to-six weeks but sidelined him only 13 days before he returned to action in Detroit.

That’s all of Montreal’s goals coming from players who have been playing banged up, players who consistently deliver exactly what Canadiens coach Claude Julien said he wants.

“I’m looking for guys who are ready to go through the trenches to win a hockey game,” Julien said earlier on Thursday. “That’s what we’re looking for as an organization. We want guys that are willing to push through and do those kind of things.”

It’s those comments that made his decision to scratch Artturi Lehkonen against the Capitals so shocking.

The 24-year-old Finn has played through his fair share of bumps and bruises this season, but it’s never stopped him from being the type of player Julien admires, the type of player the coach was describing in his answer to that Thursday morning question about Weber.

We’re talking about a player who had appeared in all 62 games the Canadiens had played prior to this one; a player who had 12 goals and 25 points despite being heavily depended on in a shutdown role; a player who is consistently relied on at 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill; a player known for having arguably the best work ethic on the team; a player who was the first to come down with stomach flu that later ravaged the team over the last few weeks (he didn’t miss a shift); a player who was clearly stung when he blocked an Auston Matthews shot with his hand seven games ago (but it didn’t keep him out of action for more than a period).

Lehkonen wasn’t exactly trending towards being held out of action after playing 16:52 in Detroit on Tuesday and 17:32 against Dallas on Saturday.

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After finding out Lehkonen was scratched, we reached out to a Western Conference executive to see if he had been traded, with the NHL’s deadline being four days away.

His response said it all.

“There’s 30 teams that would take him at the right price,” the executive texted. “We aren’t getting him. We like him, but Montreal loves him.”

It’s why even though Julien’s explanation for his decision was perfectly valid, we had trouble buying it.

“He’s been a great penalty killer, a great defensive player,” Julien said. “I think on the other side of it, when you look back at his career and what he was — and what he was when he first got here — I think we like a guy that’s a good two-way player, that plays with some of our top offensive players.

“At the same time, he needs to be able to make plays and that’s what we need from him. It’s as simple as that. At the end of the day, it wasn’t so much that you’re totally displeased with a player, but you got a guy like (Jordan) Weal, you got a guy like (Nick) Cousins who’s been playing well. If we’re going to reward guys that are playing well, that’s what I had to do tonight. I had to keep those guys in the lineup. And Paulie Byron’s back, so the competition… I didn’t have that luxury most of the season, I have it now.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Again, all of that is fair to say. Weal had two assists in Detroit and scored a goal against Dallas. Cousins had a goal against the Stars and an assist against the Wings and has been a mainstay in Julien’s lineup because of his versatility. Lehkonen, who gets a lot of opportunities, can bring more offence than the one goal and one assist he had produced over his last 10 games. And with Byron back in the mix on the left side, there is more internal competition than there has been for months.

But, with the Canadiens 10 points out of a wild-card position and eight points out of third place in the Atlantic Division with 19 games to go, we weren’t alone in thinking the decision to scratch Lehkonen had more to do with showcasing certain other players than it did with anything related to Lehkonen.

“I think (it’s deadline-related),” said Danault. “I don’t think Lehky should be scratched. He’s really important for us. He’s very good on the PK, very valuable. He’s been big for us.”

Gallagher said he was surprised to learn Lehkonen was being scratched and added, “Lehky’s somebody who does everything you can ask for our team. He works incredibly hard, he’s responsible all over the ice…

But the Canadiens are in sell-mode, and they have some players who can’t be attractive to other teams if they’re sitting on the sidelines.

“There’s decisions that are going to be made,” said Gallagher, “and, at this point, obviously we know what Lehks brings to the table.”

What Lehkonen brings is what the players who won the game for the Canadiens bring.

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