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How a pair of Finns might help Montreal win the battle against Pittsburgh

The playoffs could see Artturi Lehkonen and Joel Armia shine.

Dallas Stars v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

There is no easy way around it. The Montreal Canadiens qualifying-round matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins is going to be tough, even more so if the Habs want to pull off a stunning upset. We already know just how important the trio of Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar is to the success of the team, but in the post-season it takes more than just one line to make good things happen. A strength the Canadiens have is in their skilled middle-six forward options, namely in a pair of Finnish wingers. Both Artturi Lehkonen and Joel Armia aren’t known for lighting up the scoresheet but are highly versatile, and in the case of Lehkonen — a known playoff performer.

I know it’s easy to look at Lehkonen’s past few years and find that unbelievable, but this young Finn managed to beat Daniel Alfredsson’s playoff scoring record in Frolunda at the ripe age of 20 years old. In his only playoff showing with the Canadiens, Lehkonen posted four points in six games while looking like one of the few dangerous Habs on the ice every night. Armia has 13 games of playoff experience with the Winnipeg Jets, but since joining the Canadiens has slowly transformed into an entirely new player.

So, how does this factor into the Canadiens qualifying matchup?

It’s simple — in thought at least. Both Lehkonen and Armia are relentless forecheckers, and both never give up the puck without a battle of some kind. Particularly in the case of Armia, whose talent is on full display during one-on-one battles as he activates his hands to dangle the puck while also using his massive frame to wedge opponents away from the puck along the boards.

The above clip shows Armia at his best. Using his hands to get the defender off balance, pulling up and circling back towards a better shooting area, shrugging off a check, dangling through again, and finishing through another stick check on the back boards. What’s more is that Armia’s wrist shot is extremely heavy and accurate, so much so that his teammates have said it’s the best on the team. Not much space is required for Armia to let that shot fly either, doing so even while fighting through stick checks with regularity.

A deadly shooter with the frame to battle and wear down opposing defences is a rare combination, and the Habs have that in Armia. The big Finn spent most of his season flanking one of Max Domi or Nick Suzuki, with a little time alongside Jesperi Kotkaniemi as well. His skill set does well to create space for those talented playmakers and could easily do the same against Pittsburgh.

Lehkonen is a curious case. He does so many little things during every single game to make himself a dangerous threat, but can’t seem to capture the magic from his rookie season in terms of finishing plays. While the lack of polish in terms of goal scoring is what many fans focus on, ignoring what gets Lehkonen into those dangerous spots isn’t fair to the young Finn.

Lehkonen’s strength lays in sneaking in the offensive zone, swiping pucks off of unsuspecting defenders along the boards, and putting it back on the stick of his teammates. It’s never at half speed either. Lehkonen flies in fast, surprising opponents causing them to misplays pucks, or just lose it entirely. In that same vein, he has a knack for slipping coverage and into open space between the dots in the offensive zones. This is where pairing him up with a player like Armia could yield some big results against Pittsburgh. Armia works well drawing in defenders, and Lehkonen can use that to put himself into dangerous scoring spots, or vice versa.

While Lehkonen doesn’t have the goal-scoring totals many expect, his snap shot is fired off quickly and doesn’t require much space like Armia’s wrister. With his penchant for hanging out around the net, that’s quite a benefit for Lehkonen.

We’ve talked about how Shea Weber and Jeff Petry will be kessential to the defence and how the top line will arguably have their biggest task of the year on their hands, but a key to this series could lay in the hands of two Finnish wingers. Both Joel Armia and Artturi Lehkonen have the skill sets to thrive in postseason hockey, and this qualifying round against the Penguins is a chance to show that off. It won’t be pretty most of the time, but if the Habs want to pull off the upset they’ll take goals whichever way they might come.