It’s no longer a surprise to see No. 32 between the pipes for the Dallas Stars. Kari Lehtonen hasn’t missed a minute of goaltending since February 19th, when backup goaltender Andrew Raycroft last started. As the season grinds into its most important stretch, the coaching staff in Dallas has shown total confidence in Lehtonen — and he has earned every start. So far in the month of March, Lehtonen has posted a 5-2-3 record, a solid rebound from the gloomy month of February that plagued the team. Although Lehtonen has three overtime losses this month, it shows he consistently keeps his team in the game beyond 60 minutes. And with Raycroft putting up dismal numbers in his last few outings, the coaching staff realized that in order for the Stars to make the playoffs, No. 32 must be given total control of goaltending. Lehtonen responded and the team remains in the playoff picture.
After the departure of Marty Turco during this past offseason, many Stars’ fans were left in limbo, wondering who exactly would take over the goaltending reins. Stars’ management hoped the acquisition of Lehtonen during last season would solidify any goaltending enigma for Dallas. But, at the time, it was still uncertain if Lehtonen could become the full-fledged No. 1 goaltender he had been billed before his NHL days had even begun.
March 17th was a significant day for Dallas. That evening, the team had a game against the Chicago Blackhawks; the Stars dominated the Blackhawks with a final score of 5-0. Although Turco didn’t start the game for the Blackhawks, he did see significant game time when Corey Crawford was pulled after allowing three goals on 10 shots. Turco didn’t fare much better: allowing two goals on 17 shots. Not only did the Stars command the game and their old No. 1 goaltender, but Kari Lehtonen reached a milestone of his own. After earning his second shutout of the season (and 16th of his career), Lehtonen simultaneously got his 30th win of the season. Only one other time in his career has Lehtonen earned 30 wins in a season (34 in 2006-2007), and only two other times has he even won 20 (2005-2006). Since those years where Lehtonen recorded +20-win seasons, he floundered in losing records and poor goaltending statistics with the Atlanta Thrashers. However, it appears Lehtonen is finding his winning ways once again in Dallas. If you were to have told Stars’ management, Stars’ fans and Lehtonen before the start of the season that No. 32 would post +30 wins, all sides would have been ecstatic.
After acquiring Lehtonen from the Thrashers last February, Dallas’ management awarded the young Finnish goaltender from Helsinki a three-year contract extension, effectively giving No. 32 the keys to the starting goaltender job. It was a gamble. Oft-injured goaltenders, such as Lehtonen was, may never return to their original, dominating selves (see Rick DiPietro). That’s why Lehtonen’s 30th win of the year carries so much weight: not only does it cement the goaltending situation in Dallas, but it reaffirms to No. 32 that he can be a top goaltender in the NHL.
The 5-0 win over Chicago was a positive step towards the playoffs for the team, but it was also a symbol of passing the torch from Turco to Lehtonen. That game was another sign of watching Turco disappear from his days of manning the crease in Dallas; to seeing Lehtonen burgeon into the franchise goalie every Stars’ fan wants him to be. The Dallas Stars’ management and fans lost their franchise goaltender during this past offseason, but they didn’t have to wait long to see him replaced.