Artturi Lehkonen scores, leaves injured in Montreal return as Avs win

MONTREAL — Artturi Lehkonen was standing at the same end of the ice where he scored the Canadiens’ most important goal of this century. That goal, the Game 6 overtime winner that sent Montreal to the Stanley Cup Final in 2021, played above him on the Bell Centre jumbotron.

Lehkonen is a vicious forechecker who keeps to himself and rarely allows his focus to stray while on the ice. But he craned his neck to relive this. Nathan MacKinnon playfully slapped Lehkonen with his stick as the crowd went wild. Lehkonen tapped his heart, saluting his old home.

That moment was the centerpoint of an emotional, exceptional and ultimately uneasy return to Montreal. In a mostly seamless 8-4 Avalanche win Monday, Lehkonen scored on his first shift after the tribute video, was cheered by the opposing fans, then was given belated credit for an earlier goal to bring his career total to an anticlimactic 100. Then he exited the game with an upper-body injury in the second period. He didn’t return.

The Avs (37-22-6) smoked the struggling Canadiens with a four-goal first period while allowing only two shots on goal in the first 18-plus minutes. Until the Habs finally scored late in the first, the Avalanche had allowed a combined two shots in a stretch lasting 42:57. In the second period, that defensive feat expanded to five shots allowed in 57:45 of game time.

But Lehkonen was the main character while he was present in the game, and the main concern once he wasn’t. It was his first game back in Montreal since the Avalanche acquired him before the 2022 trade deadline, ending a six-year run.

The city thanked him with the video and an ovation during a TV timeout. Lehkonen immediately returned the thanks with a goal for the visiting team. He deflected a Mikko Rantanen shot for a 4-0 Avalanche lead, 11 seconds after the ensuing faceoff.

When Lehkonen scored his goal to send the Habs to the Cup Final, there was no home crowd due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So the fans celebrated this one as compensation, even while getting blown out.

The irony of that wholesome moment came back to bite. Montreal rallied in the third period with Lehkonen out of the game, trimming Colorado’s lead from 7-2 to 7-4 in a matter of two minutes. Without Lehkonen’s two-goal night, the margin would be narrow. Instead, Valeri Nichushkin sealed the win with 6:51 remaining.

Nichushkin and Lehkonen played on the second line together for the second consecutive game, a change after they had recently been Nathan MacKinnon’s linemates. With J.T. Compher as their center in Montreal, all three scored. At first intermission, Lehkonen was credited with the Avs’ opener for deflecting a Logan O’Connor shot.

Thirteen different Avs registered at least one point in the win, including a three-assist night for Cale Makar, a 43rd goal this season for Mikko Rantanen and a first Avalanche point for Lars Eller, this season’s trade deadline acquisition.

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