After all but surrendering the starting goaltender job to Antti Niemi and going over a month without starting back-to-back contests, Kari Lehtonen started three games in a row for the Dallas Stars, leading the team to wins over Minnesota, Chicago and the league-leading Capitals.
The streak, while short, is significant. Before Tuesday’s game against the Wild, Lehtonen seemed to have regressed back to the netminder he was last season, and head coach Lindy Ruff seemed determined to roll Niemi out night after night in an effort to get his team out of its increasingly drawn-out slump. However, Niemi stumbled mightily in a blowout loss to Chicago on home ice, and Lehtonen was given a chance to take the team into Minnesota and earn a win.
Lehtonen Leading the Charge
He sparkled, making 37 saves in an overtime-lengthened, 62-minute performance. The “old Kari” emerged just when a team that desperately had to get back on track needed him, and Ruff gave him the nod again as the Stars looked to exact revenge on the Blackhawks. Lehtonen bowed up again, stopping 44 of 46 and turning aside the brunt of a third-period onslaught from a Chicago team trying to roar back from a four-goal deficit.
Saturday, Lehtonen was solid enough to help the Stars overcome the visiting Capitals, who have largely had their way with the league this year. He faced just 23 shots and gave up all three of his goals against in the third period when the Capitals turned the desperation up to 11, but he also made some critical saves to preserve Dallas’ third-straight victory. He’s stopping the shots that have to be saved (soft goals were one of his biggest knocks last season and during his down period this year) and making some “old-school Kari” saves, like this one against the Wild’s Ryan Suter:
The Stars have now won seven of their last nine outings, and the team as a whole has followed Lehtonen’s upward trend. The commitment to team defense and backchecking by forwards that Ruff so adamantly champions has taken root again, and the offense is bearing fruit at a high level, having scored 12 goals in its last three games. The Stars have gotten back to their own breakneck brand of transitioning with speed and leaning hard on teams with their forecheck, and it paid dividends against the two best teams in the league not nicknamed for celestial bodies.
Finding a Rhythm
February is the consensus “toughest month” for Dallas, but getting Lehtonen going could help tremendously. Early in the year, both of the Stars’ goaltenders were playing well and feeding off of one another, an element that was missing during the extended dry spell. If Niemi can bounce back from his ugly start when he hits the ice next and Lehtonen can continue to play at a high level, the two could get back into the rhythm that was so productive at the outset of this year’s campaign.
Niemi will lead the Stars against the Predators Monday night in another heavyweight bout, and the team will turn right around for a matchup with the Blues on Tuesday. A month ago, Stars fans would have dreaded their team taking on that tall of an order on just a day’s rest and Ruff would’ve been left with arguably the toughest decision in net he’s faced all year, but now there’s cause for measured optimism. Tyler Seguin and Cody Eakin appear to be OK despite injury scares Saturday, Jason Spezza could be back as soon as this weekend, and the club’s Finnish tandem in net is showing signs of returning to form.
It would appear Tyler Seguin and Cody Eakin should play tonight. Here's a quote from Lindy Ruff: pic.twitter.com/txSm81G7ff
— Mark Stepneski (@StarsInsideEdge) February 15, 2016
If the team can continue its improved play in back-to-back scenarios, where the Stars have gone 4-2-2 this season, and bring a handful of points home from this three-game road trip, this latest streak could be the launching point for another wave of good times in Dallas.