DENVER — Artturi Lehkonen knew right where to go, as if he’d known Mikko Rantanen since they were kids.
Which he had.
“We grew up together, basically,” Lehkonen said.
It was Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final at Ball Arena on Wednesday night. The Colorado Avalanche had a one-goal lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning and a 5-on-3 power play late in the first period.
As forward Gabriel Landeskog sent the puck from behind the goal line to the top of the right circle, Lehkonen crept from the left corner to the left side of the net.
Head up, spotting his old buddy on the back door, Rantanen slid a pass between the legs of Lightning penalty-killer Pierre-Edouard Bellemare to the blade of Lehkonen’s stick.
Lehkonen tapped the puck past the right pad of goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to give the Avalanche a 3-1 lead at 17:31.
Perfect place at the perfect time, in more ways than one.
The Avalanche went on to win 4-3 in overtime and take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-7 series. Game 2 is here on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN+, CBC, SN, TVAS).
“Yeah, it’s special, for sure,” Rantanen said. “You probably would have not [thought], like, 12 years ago when we played in the hometown team together that in 2022 we would be in the finals playing for the Stanley Cup.”
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Lehkonen and Rantanen are from Turku, Finland. Lehkonen, now 26, is about a year older than Rantanen, and he said they didn’t play together often. But he said they have known each other since they were about 10, and they played together in some tournaments growing up and for Finland at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship.
When the Avalanche were looking to bolster their lineup before the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline, general manager Joe Sakic got a scouting report on Lehkonen from Rantanen.
“Yeah, I think we had a little chat,” Rantanen said. “I can’t remember exact how it went, but I think they asked for sure what kind of guy [he is], and I said he’s a bad guy.”
“Just kidding,” he continued. “No, I told them right away he’s a great guy and he could help our team a lot in the locker room and especially on the ice.”
Sakic thought Lehkonen would be a good fit for the Avalanche in multiple ways, giving them flexibility, grit, speed, scoring — all things they could use to make a deep playoff run.
“Versatile player, can play on any line,” Sakic said. “We were looking that one type of player who could do that. He’s competitive. He fast.”
Lehkonen was preparing to play for the Montreal Canadiens against the Boston Bruins on March 21 when he learned he had been traded to the Avalanche for a second-round pick in the 2024 NHL Draft and defenseman prospect Justin Barron.
Video: TBL@COL, Gm1: Lehkonen re-takes 2-goal lead on 5-on-3
The Canadiens didn’t necessarily want to trade Lehkonen; Lehkonen didn’t necessarily want to leave Montreal. But the Canadiens received a good return, and if Lehkonen could have picked anywhere he wanted to go, it would have been Colorado.
“It was an interesting day for sure,” Lehkonen said. “I was just taking my pregame nap, and then I got a call, and I was just like, ‘OK, I guess I’ve got to get packing,’ basically. But yeah, it’s an exciting time to get another shot at the Stanley Cup.”
Lehkonen had 149 points (74 goals, 75 assists) in 396 regular-season games and 12 points (six goals, six assists) in 33 Stanley Cup Playoff games with the Canadiens from 2016-22, including perhaps the biggest goal in Montreal in almost three decades.
It was Lehkonen who scored the series-clincher in overtime of Game 6 of the NHL Semifinals against the Vegas Golden Knights at Bell Centre last year, putting the Canadiens in the Cup Final for the first time since 1993.
They ended up losing to the Lightning in five games in the Cup Final.
Lehkonen had nine points (six goals, three assists) in 16 regular-season games for Colorado. Now he has 12 points (seven goals, five assists) in 15 playoff games, including perhaps the biggest goal for Colorado in more than two decades.
It was Lehkonen who scored the series clincher in overtime of Game 4 of the Western Conference Final against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Place on June 6, putting the Avalanche in the Cup Final for the first time since 2001. Now he gets another shot against the Lightning in the Cup Final.
“Yeah, it was pretty funny, to be honest,” Lehkonen said. “It was nice to get that goal, for sure, and get us to the finals. Hopefully this time around we’re going to take the Cup.”
Three more wins, and Lehkonen and Rantanen can take it back to Turku together.
“It’s special to have a close friend like that,” Rantanen said.