On the surface it seemed like a great effort in an otherwise losing cause. The Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks were firing on all cylinders, holding a 3-0 lead in the first period and enjoying a two-man power play advantage. Displaying the speed that was a trademark of the championship season, the Hawks dangled in the offensive zone until Brent Seabrook had the puck on his tape at right faceoff circle with half the net seemingly open for another lamp-lighter and a 4-0 lead just a millisecond away. The D-man launched a laser of a wrist shot for the top shelf, near-side, nothing left to do but watch the red light go on…..again. At the last instant, appearing out of nowhere, the glove of Kari Lehtonen
steals the rubber projectile from its appointed target. In an amazing display of talent and quickness the 6-foot, 4-inch Finnish netminder had pushed from far post to near, done the splits and somehow snagged a 70mph object out of midair, keeping the deficit at three.
A candidate for NHL save of the year, it was the catalyst for an emotional Stars come from behind victory. Goal denied, momentum stopped, game saved, all in the blink of an eye.
Dallas Head Coach Marc Crawford raved, “Kari’s save allowed us to stay in the game. After the first period all the guys in the locker room were saying that’s the TSN Turning Point (named after a famous staple of Hockey highlights in Canada). It’s so important that you get a save he’s ultimately not supposed to make to give you a chance to win and Kari’s done that for us a couple of times this year.”
“Anytime someone makes a big play it helps fire up the team,” said Lehtonen. “Sometimes the big save is when the score is tied and your guys take it the other way and score. Sometimes it’s when you make a save to keep your team in front early in the game or give them a chance to tie it late in a game, you just have to be ready.”
The life of a goaltender is one of repetition. Pucks, thousands of them, all heading in your direction during the course of a season’s worth of games and practices. Unlike your teammates, who try to avoid getting in the way, the job of a goaltender is the exact opposite. Whether it’s going 70, 80, 90 miles an hour, the task demands you put some part of your body in between the rubber and the back of the net. A task that is just as vital in the first minute of a game as in the 60th and final minutes of regulation play.
“You can work with these guys all you want in practice, hours on angles reflexes and technique and they will create the muscle memory needed during a game,” explained Mike Valley, Stars goaltender coach. “At this level they all have the physical tools necessary to compete. What sets Kari apart is the exceptional physical ability combined with the mental toughness to stay sharp throughout a game because the most important save is the next one.”
Mental toughness, the biggest factor in being elite. As Hall of Fame Goalie Jacques Plante once famously described his profession, “How would you like it if every time you make a mistake, a big red light goes on and 18,000 people boo?” It’s the kind of pressure to which few in any sport or profession can relate. The physical demands are obvious, but the mental game is just as grueling and just as vital for greatness.
“When I was younger and I let in a goal, I could not forget and it would stay in my mind while I was playing the game,” said Lehtonen. “That would lead to bad concentration and more goals. As I have gotten older , I learned to put it behind me on concentrate on what I have to do to stop the next shot.”
Valley explains, “We talk after every period, we discuss what went right, what didn’t and what needs to be done coming up and that’s the end of the conversation, no looking back. You see with young goalies how one goal leads to another and then big trouble. Kari has the mental edge now to put all moments, good or bad, behind him and worry about the next play. With him usually the next save is a pretty good one.”
Some nights, it keeps the game tied, sometimes it keeps the team in front, and then there are times it stops the bleeding just in the nick of time. The bottom line for goalie and coach is simple; keep your memory short and keep your team believing they have a chance to win. Even when facing a deficit, you never can tell when the next highlight reel performance will turn around a game or perhaps even an entire season.