Walking a Fine Line with Kari Lehtonen

Things are much better these days in Dallas. Much, much better.

After two recent four-game winning streaks and an 8-1-1 record over the past 10 games, the Dallas Stars are feeling much more like themselves recently. It seems like the Stars fixed or at least greatly improved most of the problems that plagued their disastrous start to the season. There is an issue hidden in the success that does need to carefully watched, however.

Stars Keep Lehtonen Busy

In his first four full seasons in Dallas, the team would rise and fall in correlation with Kari Lehtonen’s play. On most nights, even his stellar play only did enough to keep them in the game or give them a chance to win. Last season was a little different. With the 10th-ranked offense in the league last season, Lehtonen finally had the offensive support to take some weight off his shoulders. With that and his strong play, especially down the final stretch of the regular season, the Stars earned their first playoff berth since 2008 and pushed the Western Conference-leading Anaheim Ducks to within three minutes of a seventh game.

Lehtonen stumbled out of the gates this season as he struggled in October and November. He did not look like himself. His reactions were slower, his angles were not as sharp and his movement seemed delayed. It was almost as if he was unsure of himself or thinking too much instead of reacting. He has turned that around recently, and so has the team’s success.

Behind the Numbers

The problem is not about whether Kari Lehtonen is the right man for the job or how good he is, the problem is how much the Stars can afford to lean on him. He has played 274 games since coming to Dallas. He has appeared in at least 60 games a season three times, including an adjusted lockout-shortened season and is on pace to do so again. Before last season, one of biggest complaints about Lehtonen’s play was that he was worn down by the end of the season, when the Stars needed him to clinch a playoff spot.

Anders Lindback has not done much to help ease the worries of resting Lehtonen. Through six appearances, Lindback has an abysmal 4.29 goals against average and .894 save percentage with all but one of the appearances resulting in a loss. A short call-up for Jussi Rynnas also disappointed earlier this season. Lehtonen has already started 12 games in a row. The question is how much more can the Stars lean on and push their goaltender with wearing him down for the stretch run?

Before the 5-4 overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday, Lehtonen stopped 144 of 155 shots and registered one shutout during the four-game winning streak. Lindback looks to get the start tonight against the Columbus Blue Jackets, so Lehtonen will get a couple of days of rest. The Stars can afford to play him the rest of this month if need be, but a plan will need to be in place for after that.

In what is left of January, the Stars have 11 games stretched over 24 days. There is only one set of back-to-backs near the middle of the month, so there is plenty of time for Lehtonen to rest and recharge in between games. February is a completely different story with 13 games in 28 days and three sets of back-to-backs.

The Stars are five points out of a playoff spot nearly halfway into the season, and Lehtonen has played in 33 games. It is not out of the realm of possibility to see the big Finnish netminder play over 70 games again. The hope is that Lindback can step up to relieve some pressure or Lehtonen can get some Adamantium to handle the heavy workload until the offseason.