In Summer 2015, Jim Nill traded the Stars’ sixth round pick to the Sharks for the rights to Antti Niemi in the 2015 offseason, stunning fans and media alike. The Stars now had important decisions to make in net, with Kari Lehtonen coming off a weak season with five years still left on his seven-season contract.
Would Niemi or Lehtonen serve as Dallas’ starter come preseason? Both netminders are over 30 years old, played together for Finland in the 2014 Winter Olympics, and ended 2014-15 with similar stats. When the Stars missed the postseason, leaving Lehtonen with a 2.94 GAA, and .903 SV%, former Sharks goaltender, Niemi, left off with 2.59 GAA, and .914 SV%.
Fast-forward to the first quarter of the 2015-16 season, and the Stars are enjoying their best start in franchise history. Sitting at 17-4-0 to lead the league, the Stars finally have the support they’ve needed in net for years. Suffering a consistent trend of unreliable backup goaltending, Dallas finally has a two-starter system that works.
Many figures in the media still expect a true “starter” to rise to the top in Dallas, but why change a system that is serving the team well? As long as both goalies continue to build on Dallas’ winning record, fans should expect to see even ice time for both Lehtonen and Niemi as they make the “radiant saves” that hold their team in the lead.
It’s one thing to talk about big saves, but another to see them in motion. Take a look at some of the biggest saves of the Dallas Stars’ early season.
Niemi’s Save Off the Crossbar
In his first start with the Stars, Niemi walked out of American Airlines Center with a shutout on opening night. Throughout the game, Niemi proved his worth with a few blind saves to preserve the game.
This combination effort from Niemi and the Stars’ defense also helped preserve the opening night shutout. The Penguins have the extra attacker, while Niemi manages to find some lateral movement on his behind to keep the Pens from stuffing a goal five-hole.
Lehtonen’s Close-Range Save
Shawn Thornton had a stunning, nearly one-on-one opportunity in the low slot that Lehtonen shuts down despite a scramble.
Niemi’s Penalty Kill Puck Tracking
The Flyers screened Niemi well on this power play cycle, but he still makes three saves on both Voracek and Giroux through traffic.
Lehtonen Stops All Staals
The Staal brothers gang up on Lehtonen, but he successfully navigates the crease to make saves both short-side, and at the back door.
Lehtonen Thwarts 2-on-1
When Dylan Larkin and Brendan Smith slip past the Stars for a 2-on-1 opportunity, Lehtonen shuts down a fast-paced play by anticipating Larkin’s last-second pass.
Lehtonen’s Skate Blade Save
Sometimes a goaltender makes a smart play to shut down a goal, and other times he gets lucky. This skate save was a stroke of luck, but a lucky save on a redirection is always better than none.
Lehtonen’s Point-Blank Save
Similar to Lehtonen’s skate save, this save on a close-range shot from inside the crease was exactly the kind of stop that the Stars need against physical, Central Division rivals.
Niemi Stones Eichel Twice
In the Stars’ second game against the Buffalo Sabres, Niemi stoned second overall 2015 draft pick, Jack Eichel, twice in stunning fashion. Each time, Eichel slides through the crease with a fast, aggressive play that Niemi expertly dampens.
Stars Goalie Tandem is No Passing Fad
While Dallas is enjoying the hot start to the 2015-16 season, the real test comes during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Commentators and critics cite goaltending as one of, if not the most important factor for strong, Stanley Cup-winning teams. If the Stars do well on the back-end during the postseason, other teams may spend big bucks on elite goalie tandems come the offseason.
So far, Dallas’ goaltenders have been able to finish games. Not only have they maintained better rebound control and played tighter on their posts than in previous seasons, but they haven’t been run out of net due to injury or breakdown. If healthy, the Stars’ two-headed goalie monster will serve them well in the postseason, providing a leg up over other strong playoff teams during a time where the Stars’ inexperience is a hindrance.