EDMONTON, ALBERTA – Artturi Lehkonen with the game-winning goal. Pavel Francouz with the win in goal. Darren Helm with the faceoff win leading to the overtime winner by Lehkonen. Isn’t this how we all drew it up for the Colorado Avalanche in a scenario that would put them into the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 21 years?
Sure we did.
But that’s what happened tonight here at Rogers Place. Two years ago, this team lost a second-round Western Conference series in this building with no fans in the stands. Tonight, every seat was taken, most of them dressed in the burnt orange and blue colors of the Oilers.
It was almost as quiet as the last time the Avalanche finished a series here.
The Avalanche, which won the Western regular-season points title just like two years ago, got it done this time. They are going to the Stanley Cup Finals to play either the Tampa Bay Lightning or the New York Rangers in a best-of-seven series that Colorado will have home ice for.
The Colorado Avalanche Comeback
Lehkonen’s goal, early in overtime after the Avalanche fought back from a 4-2 third-period deficit, then lost a 5-4 lead, won the game. It was close to a high-stick violation, but because that’s not primarily how the goal was scored – Mike Smith let out a big rebound – Lehkonen’s goal counted on his rebound putback.
Lehkonen, acquired at the NHL trade deadline by Joe Sakic for prospect defenseman Justin Barron, has made the Avalanche general manager look very, very good. Not only is he a future Frank J. Selke candidate, he is a pretty consistent point producer too.
It is the Avs’ much-vaunted depth that is continuing to pay off. Nazem Kadri is now lost to the team to injury, but it’s the next-man-up attitude that keeps propelling this team forward.
Here’s the thing about Lehkonen: His goal put the Montreal Canadiens into the Stanley Cup Finals last year, in a game against Vegas. He’s done it AGAIN a year later, for a different team.
“I just got a good bounce,” the soft-spoken Finn said.
Modesty is a prime Finnish trait.
This game went back and forth all night, but the Avalanche fought back in the third to get the game tied, then got a 5-4 lead on a Mikko Rantanen goal. Zach Kassian tied it 5-5, so to OT it went. The Avalanche, maybe feeling like they were playing with some house money by that point, seemed like the looser team in OT. After Helm won a faceoff back to Cale Makar, who put a shot on net, Lehkonen got his stick on it. Smith made the save, but as was his custom all series long, allowed a big, juicy rebound. Lehkonen was only too happy to put it back in the net.
I checked in with former NHL referee Dave Jackson, who lives in Colorado now, and he told Colorado Hockey Now this about why the Lehkonen goal counted:
“The play they reviewed, the puck was determined to be below the height of his shoulders, and not a high stick. Otherwise, it would have been disallowed because Edmonton did not gain possession,” Jackson said.
Jackson added: “The actual procedure is anytime in the last 60 seconds of regulation and in OT.”
Jared Bednar is now one series win away from winning a Stanley Cup along with a Calder Cup as a coach. His team has morphed better into his actual demeanor, which is: not too high, not too long. That’s exactly the demeanor Joe Sakic had as a player, and now as a GM too. (Remember how Sakic showed little emotion after Helm won Game 6 in the second round?).
But that’s how the Colorado Avalanche really seem to be now: focused, not getting too ahead of themselves, not whining about tough breaks of the past.
“I’m proud of the guys. We didn’t play great, especially in the second period. We talked about the importance of just coming out and playing hard in the third, and we did it. It was guys stepping up at key times and making plays,” Bednar said.
“I think this team now has shown a lot of growth,” Bednar said.
Indeed, it has. Only one more thing to prove, to grow along with: the Stanley Cup Finals. Game 1 is either June 15 or 18.
In an interview with TV after the game, Gabe Landeskog said why some people put their hands on the Western Conference trophy – which some view as a jinx: “Some guys wanted to touch it, some didn’t. Who cares?”
No such thing as jinxes.
Your game video highlights. Enjoy:
Kelsey Hammond contributed to this story