Like last season, the Dallas Stars saved some of their best hockey for the end of the season, and one of the keys to their turnaround is goaltender Kari Lehtonen. He has returned to top form and helped spur the Stars to back-to-back wins and a 7-2-0 record over the last nine games.
Lehtonen’s Impressive Recent Run
In his last six starts, Lehtonen registered five wins and surrendered nine goals. More impressive is the list of teams Lehtonen helped defeat in that span. The list consists of the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers. There’s plenty of firepower and offensive threats in most of those lineups, but Lehtonen managed to stop 140 of 149 shots for a .939 save percentage.
Defensive play and special teams improved recently in front of Lehtonen, but he looks like a different goalie in net, a familiar goalie. He looks like the goalie that backstopped the Stars to a superb late run into the playoffs last season. The one that helped push the Anaheim Ducks to the end of a game six before bowing out. In fact, it was that game six collapse that had Stars fans and analysts wondering whether that meltdown had lingering effects on his psyche leading to a poor start to this season.
It’s true that Lehtonen seemed haunted early on. He seemed to second guess himself and his instincts. He suffered from delayed reactions, easily losing positioning, scrambling in search of the puck, succumbing to simple screens and bad reads. In the past six games, especially in Saturday night’s 4-0 win over the Blackhawks, Lehtonen returned to his elite self. The goalie that was counted on to carry the Stars and came through most nights was back.
The Stars have limited the odd-man rushes on Lehtonen recently, but he still seems to face a couple of breakaways and several defensive breakdowns each game, so it hasn’t been a breeze for him in net. He gave up a number of straight forward breakaways throughout the season, but he has shut the door of late. For a goalie who excels in shootouts, the simple breakaway goals were a little confusing.
Saturday night, Lehtonen shut down Marian Hossa on a critical breakaway that looked familiar to some of the goals he surrendered earlier in the season. Then he stopped a Brandon Saad penalty shot in the third period for good measure.
Looking Back and Looking Ahead
You don’t have to look far to see why this is one of Lehtonen’s worst statistical seasons of his career and easily his worst since being traded to the Stars in the Spring of 2010. Just seven games ago, Lehtonen surrendered three goals on 14 shots and was pulled little over halfway through the game at the Florida Panthers. He reached a .900 save percentage or better in one of the four games before that. Lehtonen faced a rough stretch in late January where he only reached the .900 mark once in nine games.
In 59 games this season, Lehtonen’s owns a 31-14-10 record with five shutouts, a 2.82 GAA and a .908 save percentage. Not bad numbers overall, but with the Stars trying to make a late push with 10 games left until the playoffs, more is expected out of the netminder. The team’s fate now partly relies on which Lehtonen mans the net. For Dallas’ sake, the current form of a familiar, reliable and standing ovation-worthy Lehtonen needs to continue.