Roger Neilson, the late, great NHL coach, had a theory about fore-checking and early in his career he used a large, elderly collie named Jacques to teach it to junior-aged players.
Neilson would head behind the net with a tennis ball on his stick and his dog would stand in front of the goalie, waiting for him to make a move.
The lesson: If canines know not to chase people mindlessly around stationary objects, hockey players should be able to learn to do the same, or at least imitate the behaviour.
It’s not known whether Montreal Canadiens forward Artturi Lehkonen had a dog growing up in Piikkio, Finland, but he plays like one, relentlessly, tirelessly and with enthusiasm.
In the first period at the Bell Centre on Thursday Lehkonen provided an example of how subtle positioning and on-the-fly decision making can affect a close game.
With New York Rangers defenceman Marc Staal skating back to retrieve a loose puck in the right corner of his own zone the Finn bustled in behind him, on his outside shoulder, forcing him behind the net.
That’s where Lehkonen, rather than following, turned hard and scooted around the front, thus forcing Staal toward the boards and, as he turned to avoid a referee, the Finn sneaked his stick in and pilfered the puck.
The play would eventually result in a goal – Lehkonen’s second of the playoffs, which jointly leads the team with Alex Radulov – and showed why Habs coach Claude Julien has compared the heady young winger to Loui Eriksson of the Vancouver Canucks, a one-time 36-goal scorer in the NHL.
“A smart, smart player, he just has that personality, not much fazes him,” Julien said. “He just goes about his business.”
Lehkonen later added an assist on Brendan Gallagher’s go-ahead goal and ended the night on the top line and first wave of the power-play.
So, hands up out there if you predicted the 21-year-old NHL rookie would be the Habs’ most consistent forward in the playoffs to this point. Anyone?
The Canadiens face elimination on Saturday at Madison Square Garden, which will test the theory character is more consequential than other qualities in hockey.
Habs general-manager Marc Bergevin began stockpiling grit and leadership last summer (out: P.K. Subban and Lars Eller; in: Shea Weber, Andrew Shaw, Radulov), and continued at the trade deadline (in: Jordie Benn, Steve Ott, Dwight King, Andreas Martinsen).
Overlooked in much of the discussion is the never-say-die contribution from Lehkonen, a second-round choice in 2013, Bergevin’s second draft with the club.
He has 14 points in his past 17 games playing mostly third-line minutes. Not that his emergence is a shock.
Lehkonen has a lethal shot and a sky-high hockey IQ. He also owns a world junior championship gold medal and, a year ago, led Sweden’s top pro league in playoff scoring, setting a Frolunda club record. Coincidentally, one of the club’s signature exports is Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
“Although [Lundqvist’s twin brother] Joel might be a bigger deal back there,” said Lehkonen, who speaks in a commanding baritone.
The younger Lehkonen made his debut in the Liiga, or Finland’s elite league, at 16.
He’ll never be a bruiser in the NHL – he is listed, optimistically, at six feet and 182 pounds – but as Bergevin told the Montreal Gazette earlier this year, “he shakes hands like he’s six-four.”Report Typo/Error