Avalanche Cup Final thoughts: Finnish Friends Mikko Rantanen, Artturi Lehkonen shine

In the midst of Mikko Rantanen’s scrum at Tuesday’s Stanley Cup media day, a Finnish television analyst slipped through the crowd of reporters and placed a bar of Fazer chocolate on his podium. Rantanen smiled, recognizing both the Finnish treat and the face she gave him. It was Ismo Lehkonen, who works for the Finnish Broadcasting Company and also happens to be the father of Artturi Lehkonen, one of Rantanen’s Avalanche teammates.

Artturi has made sure that the chocolate is not neglected. During his media hustle, he carried a pair of Frazer bars in the pocket of his shorts. According to his father, it’s the only unhealthy food he’s allowed to eat. “No chips,” said Ismo on Wednesday of the additional press seats in the ball arena. “The only sweets he eats are these.”

How is it different from chocolate in North America? Artturi’s answer is simple, if perhaps not descriptive.

“It’s just so much better. In every way,” he said. There is no doubt about that.”

Aside from their shared appreciation for their homeland’s chocolate, Finnish duo Rantanen and Lehkonen have been a blessing to Colorado. They help keep the lineup balanced, with Rantanen currently carrying the second line and Lehkonen the third. Both play on the Avalanche’s top power play unit.

On opening night, Rantanen and Lehkonen left their fingerprints on Colorado’s 4-3 win. Rantanen had two assists, including one on a perfect pass to Lehkonen, who waited out the back door in a five-on-three power play. Lehkonen buried that look and also had a pair of clears playing in Avalanche’s penalty shootout. Each also had impressive underlying numbers. According to the Natural Stat trick, Colorado had 91.91 percent of the expected five-for-five goal percentage with Rantanen on the ice and 70.57 percent with Lehkonen.

The two grew up close in their homeland and train alongside Ismo in the off-season, and Rantanen was delighted when Colorado was traded to Lehkonen in March. Now they’re thriving on hockey’s biggest stage.

“(Lehkonen) has always been a player, especially in the playoffs,” Rantanen said. “He scored big goals for us. He goes into the hard areas. He’s not afraid of anything, even though he’s not the greatest.”

Rantanen, who had the first scoring chance of the finals with a backhand shot caught by Andrei Vasilevskiy, was one of the most striking players in Game 1. With him on the ice, the Avalanche had seven scoring chances (only two v), three High Risk chances (zero v) and 22 shot attempts (11 vs), according to the Natural Stat trick.

Ismo, who aired live break reports in Finland, believes Rantanen has relaxed as the postseason has progressed, particularly after the Avalanche made it past the second round, which had been their downfall for the past three seasons.

“He was a bit nervous because the pressure was so high,” Ismo said. “I said to the Finns: Third round, he will play well. Don’t worry. He will now become a horse.”

He was right. Rantanen has scored four of their five playoff goals in their last five games.

When asked if the chocolate had anything to do with his success, Rantanen admitted he doesn’t plan to do one before the offseason.

“I’ll try to stay out of it for the next two weeks,” he said. “My girlfriend ate a bit, so maybe that was luck.”

Ismo’s experience

What’s it like for Ismo to cover a show his son is in? Well, he’s transparent about his roots.

“It’s weird, but everyone in Finland knows that, and I tell them, ‘I’m on Colorado’s wagon,'” Ismo said. “Everyone understands that.”

Ismo Lehkonen is in the additional press seats in the Ball Arena. (Peter Baugh / the athlete)

Bednar doesn’t shy away from matchups

Tampa’s Anthony Cirelli has been one of the best defensive forwards these playoffs, and coach Jon Cooper sidelined him for the opening draw. Check out these numbers from the first three rounds:

Rather than avoid putting Colorado’s top player against Cirelli, Avalanche coach Jared Bednar made a statement, starting Nathan MacKinnon and the top line.

“I think it’s inevitable that he’ll play Cirelli if that’s the matchup that Coop wants and I wanted to start our starters,” Bednar said. “You know Nate. He is not afraid or intimidated to take action against anyone. In fact, he’s accepting some of those matchups.”

In fact, MacKinnon won the matchup. He played more than five five-a-side minutes against Cirelli, and during that stretch the Avalanche had one goal and a whopping 97.82 percent of expected goal percentage, according to the Natural Stat trick.

“I’m not going to break our flow of play to avoid something until I see it’s not working,” Bednar said. “If it works and our team is comfortable with it, we will use it a little and not run away. If I want Nate to be there in certain situations and they take out Cirelli, I’ll take out Nate.

Evaluate goalkeepers

Darcy Kuemper conceded three goals in his first game since leaving Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals with an upper-body injury. At the first he might have ended Nick Paul’s breakaway if he had been more aggressive with his racquet, but Bednar was more frustrated that Erik Johnson and the defenders were letting Paul go to the net and score. Kuemper couldn’t have done much with Tampa’s second record. Superstar Nikita Kucherov made a Superstar play to find Ondrej Palat, who netted Cale Makar. Then, on the third goal, Kümper didn’t seem to be chasing the puck that came off Mikhail Sergachev’s outside stick.

Kuemper took a stick through his mask in Game 3 of the first round, and swelling around his eye forced him to miss Game 4 of that series. Though Kuemper said he felt 100 percent healthy going into the St. Louis series, Bednar said he was “trying to play through (injury) … and had some complications.” The team insists he’s after the break between the Oilers and Tampa series is now 100 percent healthy.

“I thought he was pretty good tonight,” Bednar said after Game 1. “With the goals we gave up and the chances we gave up, we made some big mistakes. … He made some great saves for us. Gave us a win. So I was pretty happy with his performance.”

Kuemper’s timing still looked a bit shaky, but he was probably struggling with some rust as well. Maybe Game 1 helped him get his timing back. If not, and if he starts struggling at the net, Pavel Francouz has proven he can win playoff games this year.

Nichushkin’s brilliance

Valeri Nichushkin, a pending unrestricted free agent, may have made some money in Game 1. He put six shots into the net – one of which went on target – and another off the crossbar. His strong forechecking also led to Colorado’s crucial scoring opportunity in overtime, and he deftly played Andre Burakovsky into the game-winner.

Injury updates

Nazem Kadri (thumb surgery) and Andrew Cogliano (finger surgery) both skated with sticks at the Ball Arena on Thursday. It was the first time Kadri was seen skating with a stick since his injury in Game 3 of the Edmonton series.

Making the most of an opportunity

The Avalanche should have come out on top in Game 1. They scored two early goals and ran all around Tampa in the first half, so rust wasn’t too much of a factor after being out for more than a week. Colorado had fresh legs and, as Tampa adjusted to the altitude, deeper lungs. Most importantly, the Avalanche took advantage of Superstar Lightning’s goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who looked a bit off early in the game. That doesn’t happen often.

When Tampa came back to level the game 3-3 in the second half, it felt like the Avalanche let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers in Game 1. But they fought back, dominating the game in the third and eventually breaking through Burakovsky’s overtime goal.

It wasn’t a game Colorado could afford to miss. Luckily for Bednar and his players, they didn’t.

(Top photo of Artturi Lehkonen scoring in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals: Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)

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