Artturi Lehkonen and Jesperi Kotkaniemi make a good puck-possession duo. In fact, Lehkonen and pretty much anyone else on the team makes a good puck-possession duo. Controlling shot attempts is simply what the Finnish winger does. He hunts, directs the puck to the outside, and steals it back.
It’s why most centres appreciate having him on their wing. He takes on the dirty work to allow his linemates to shine. He’s the first forward (F1) on the forecheck, and then the F1 in the defensive zone. In other words, Lehkonen plays the main role — the engager — in most defensive situations. He sets the tone.
He started Monday’s game with a great shift, making the correct read on a dumped puck. After seeing Matt Murray stop it behind his net, he skated hard to pressure John Marino on the retrieval before the defenceman could make a play. The puck then moved up to the blue line and then back down to him. Lehkonen activated his motor, received the rim in stride, and attempted a wraparound shot that almost surprised Murray.
Lehkonen’s intensity makes all the difference. If he had stopped skating at the blue line, he would have been late to intercept the breakout. If he didn’t activate his feet as the puck was rimmed down, the defender would have stopped his scoring chance.
What makes him effective is just that — a few extra-hard strides in situations where most let up and glide.
Of course, the Finnish winger has his weaknesses. He doesn’t manipulate defenders or create passing lanes that well. He generally lacks creativity, content to skate north-south and focusing on the net. But when paired with someone who can play inside his parameters, the winger can do some damage — which is what we saw on the Habs’ lone goal in Game 2.
Lehkonen pressured the Pittsburgh Penguins’ D-to-D pass. He skated toward Kris Letang in an inside-out manner, a planned approach that blocked the middle of the ice and forced a play along the boards, where Jeff Petry stood waiting. Petry stopped the opposing pass and sent it back down to Lehkonen, and the winger outmanoeuvred the Penguins to free himself from pressure. Then, like he always does, he turned his attention toward the cage.
Shot selection is not the winger’s forte. He is often guilty of rifling pucks toward the net that have little chance of going in, but considering the multiple bodies between him and the goalie on this particular release, Lehkonen was right to take his chance.
Kotkaniemi immediately anticipated the play of his linemate. He moved in front of the blue paint to help hide the incoming shot, and as the puck flew past him he rolled on the defender to win inside positioning and roofed the rebound with little angle to do so — a move worthy of power-forward James van Riemsdyk.
Ultimately, the goal wasn’t enough to get Montreal back in the game, but if the Finnish duo can continue preying on Pittsburgh’s bottom six, they just might give the Habs the edge needed to win the series.
Montreal will have the last change in next two games, and it might be the time for Claude Julien to add punch to the duo by swapping Paul Byron for a better playmaker. The speedy winger certainly helped Kotkaniemi and Lehkonen shut down the opposition and stay afloat when they were forced in a match up against Evgeni Malkin, but he doesn’t seem to have as much offensive chemistry with the duo.
Lehkonen has an aggressive shooter mentality, but he isn’t particularly deceptive in the way he roams the ice for pockets of space. He needs a winger who can locate him quickly as he springs to the top of the slot.
The third line combined their efforts to steal the puck on the forecheck. Kotkaniemi rushed the puck-carrier, Byron took away the middle of the ice, and Lehkonen blocked the weak side. Justin Schultz found himself without a play and rapidly lost the puck. Byron grabbed it on the back wall and sent the puck to the top of the zone, toward his defenceman.
There were a couple of issues with that play. First, Byron made it clear to Pittsburgh that his intention was to go for the low-to-high pass. As a result, the high defensive winger sprinted toward Xavier Ouellet before the pass was even made, closing down the space of the defenceman, and probably contributing to make him panic and lose his touch. Using the top of the zone wasn’t a bad play, but Byron needed to look off his target or make the feed more quickly as to not place his teammate in a difficult situation.
Second, Lehkonen had freed himself in the slot. He skated alone in front of the cage, ready to one-time a backhand pass. Byron had the space to look around and spot his teammate, but he didn’t shoulder-check. The winger lacks the instinct to try these kinds of play. He plays the system, moving the puck to the next logical destination, but rarely takes it upon his hands to beat opponents directly with a pass or a dangle.
Jonathan Drouin can’t seem to create any offence on the second line (I have my theory as to why, but that will be for a later article). So why not bring him down to the third unit? He might have trouble finding his footing right now, but he remains a more aware forward, a quick playmaker that could better find Lehkonen and Kotkaniemi off the rush and in the offensive zone. By adding Drouin, the third line would trade defensive value for offensive creativity without losing much speed, and the loss of a more shutdown presence could be offset with savvy line-matching.
Byron could better pressure Malkin on Suzuki’s wing than Drouin, and carry the puck across the zones about as well. And it’s not like the second line would lose out on offensive presence by swapping in Byron, since #92 has largely faded into the background in the start of this play-in series. I think it’s worth considering.