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Kari Lehtonen saving grace for Stars

With wins in back-to-back games, goaltender helping Dallas overcome injuries, rough start to season

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

EDMONTON -- When they hit the wall hard Tuesday, with an 8-2 loss at the Winnipeg Jets, the Dallas Stars season may have flashed before their eyes.

Unable to win two games in a row and 1-3-2 in their previous six, not much had gone right for the defending Central Division champions.

Making matters worse, injuries were piling up and affecting nearly every element of the Stars game.

Centers Jason Spezza (lower body), Cody Eakin (knee) and Mattias Janmark (knee) and wings Patrick Sharp (concussion symptoms), Jiri Hudler (illness) and Alex Hemsky (hip) all are sidelined. Dallas' man-games lost this season to injuries stand at 75.

Not entirely by himself, but near the front of the rescue unit has come veteran goalie Kari Lehtonen, who started in a 4-2 victory against the Calgary Flames on Thursday and a 3-2 win against the Edmonton Oilers on Friday. He made 69 saves in the two games.

Video: DAL@EDM: Lehtonen flashes the leather on Slepyshev

Now the Stars can breathe again, back at .500 at 6-6-3 and with one game left on their five-game road trip, at the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday (4 p.m. ET; SNP, FS-SW, NHL.TV).

"At first it was kind of a shock when guys kept falling down," Lehtonen said after defeating the Oilers. "Then there was a little bit of panic, I think. Then after that we learned how to rethink our game and not be so crazy, run-and-gun, and think more about starting with our defense.

"And now we've been playing better. From here on, I feel like it's just going to be a bonus when we start getting guys back. They're just going to add to what we have learned, the new way of playing, and I think it'll be good."

Lehtonen had not played on consecutive days since March 27 and 28, 2015. He did that six times during the 2014-15 season, and won both ends of a back-to-back on two occasions.

Last season, with veteran Antti Niemi as his new partner, Lehtonen had no back-to-back starts, so the Friday assignment at Edmonton, where he stopped 40 of 42 shots, was a little unusual.

"I think the biggest thing was that I was able to have a solid 60 minutes for the first time in a few games," he said of his win at Calgary, where he stopped 29 of 31 shots. "I think that's what [the coaches] saw also and they just wanted to keep it going. I was happy that I was able to play well. That gives confidence to me for sure.

"I haven't played back to backs in a long time. It was a fun challenge. It was nice to get lots of action to get me in the game easily the whole time."

Video: DAL@CGY: Lehtonen stops Flames twice with great saves

Lehtonen, who turns 33 on Wednesday, improved to 3-4-2 with a 2.96 goals-against average and .899 save percentage.

He said the loss at Winnipeg, where he was pulled after 30 minutes having given up four goals on 11 shots, was just one of those nights.

"The only good thing was that I started it and usually you get pulled at some point when things are really bad," Lehtonen said. "Then I was able to sit and watch. It was of those games that usually happens once a year or once in a hundred games, when everything goes wrong.

"It was the middle of the trip. After the game, nobody just went home and our separate ways. We went to the plane and we had a day together to kind of regroup. That really helped. It was all about the team. It was really key, I think."

Stars coach Lindy Ruff didn't like much about the loss at Winnipeg and said discarding it was a better course of action than overanalyzing it.

"It's my responsibility to break it down when you have a game like that and not go overboard," Ruff said. "I mean, 3-2, 8-2, 10-2, Montreal had a 10-0 [defeat]. You've got to put it away and put it away quick. You can't kill people over that game."

That strategy worked for the Stars this week, proven in the bounce-back performances at Calgary and Edmonton.

And turning to Lehtonen for another start at Calgary, then on back-to-back days by sending him right back in against the Oilers, was key.

"I thought he played well and we went with him back to back," Ruff said. "We need a goaltender to get on a roll, and I think sometimes the more they play, the more comfortable they feel.

"We had a discussion on which guy and it was sort of mixed, and [Friday] I just decided he had only played half a game in Winnipeg and to give him the back-to-back."

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