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Goaltending tandem of Lehtonen and Niemi working for Stars

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars
When the Dallas Stars decided to enter this season with two established No. 1 goaltenders in Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi, it raised a few eyebrows around the league. Two guys who were used to playing 60-plus games in a season would now have to find a way to split 82 games. How would it work? Would it work? Nobody knew.

“There were three different options,” said Lehtonen. “It’s going to work out very well, which it has. Or it’s going to work okay, or it is not going to work at all. You really don’t know what is going to happen, but so far it has been great, and we plan to keep that going.”

Said Niemi, “Either way, if you prepare yourself and if you work hard, things should fall to their place, and I think that is what happened.”

Lehtonen has posted an impressive 10-1-0 record, 2.37 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. Niemi has a 10-4-2 record, 2.57 goals-against average, .909 save percentage and two shutouts.

“I think what it’s done, it’s given both goalies an opportunity to get some rest, both goalies to be fresh,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “I think there is some healthy competition between the two, but I think it’s friendly healthy competition. Those guys like each other. They’ve been spurring each other on, and I think it’s been a great situation so far.”

Up until Lehtonen went out Nov. 24 with an upper-body injury, the starts had been split fairly evenly. Niemi had started 12 games and Lehtonen ten. Niemi had four straight starts at one point, and Lehtonen had two stretches of three consecutive starts. Even when Lehtonen returned from his injury, it seemed almost routine that he was back in the net after sitting out three games.

“We are making sure we don’t sit them out too long, two or three games max and then the other guy goes in. It’s worked well,” said Stars goaltending coach Jeff Reese. “We still go one game at a time. The good thing is they’ve both worked extremely hard, and they’ve both had some time off. They are fresh when they start; their minds are fresh, and their bodies are fresh. Another good thing is they get along so well that it has been so good for the team.”

One-third of the way into the season, goaltending has played a key role in the Stars getting off to a 20-5-2 record. The 42 points in 27 games are the best start in franchise history and had the Stars sitting with the best record in the league through Friday’s games.

The Stars, who ranked 26th last season by giving up 3.13 goals per game, are allowing 2.56 this season and rank 14th in the league. The team save percentage, 29th last season at .895 percent, ranks 17th this season at .911.

The Stars improved team defense has helped those numbers and Lehtonen and Niemi have played a key role as well. When it comes to the play of Lehtonen and Niemi, Reese, who is in his first season as goaltending coach with Dallas, has been a big factor.

“He’s done a great job,” Stars GM Jim Nill said of Reese. “I could just tell when I first met him that he is a communicator. He believes in hard work, dedication. He does things right. I knew he would be a good fit with Lindy and the rest of the assistant coaches.”

And he’s been a good fit with his goaltenders. Ask Niemi about what make Reese a good goaltending coach and he’ll point to experience. Reese played 174 games in the NHL, and he was a coach with Tampa Bay (winning a Stanley Cup in 2004) and Philadelphia before coming to Dallas.

“I am sure it comes from a lot of different things,” said Niemi. “He played the game. He played it for a long time. He’s coached it for a long time. He’s been with lots of good goalies, so I am sure he got a lot of feedback. He follows what is happening league-wide. He looks at all the goalies to see what they are doing. He played, so he knows the mindsets of goalies and what they need. It’s lots of different things.”

Ask Lehtonen about Reese and the first thing he talks about is communication, and it is a two-way street.

“I think he is very good at listening to goalies,” Lehtonen said. “We talk a lot about how something feels and how something looks. It’s not always you have to do this in this situation every time. We talk about what feels good, and that’s what feels good. He wants to learn new things, and he wants to know how we feel about some situations. We come up with the best way for me to play that situation, and Antti might play it a different way. It’s not always the same for each goalie.”

Added Niemi, “He has strong opinions, but he is open to talk about them and think about them if we have ideas. I think he has been really good.”

When the Stars hired Reese they saw him as a new voice for Lehtonen, who was coming off a rough season. Reese also is a new voice for Niemi, acquired in the offseason from San Jose to help boost the Stars goaltending. Reese been around long enough to know that he doesn’t always have all the answers, and he enjoys the give and take with his two veteran netminders.

“I suggest new things that might improve their game, might make their game easier and more efficient,” he said. “I want them to try them. I am not the kind of coach where it is my way or the highway. Dealing with two veteran guys like that it is a good fit for me because I’ve always looked at it – whether they are 21 or 31 – they are the ones doing it. They’ve got to be comfortable doing it. So, I will make suggestions. I want them to try them and see if they like them. If they like them, great. If not, we’ll find another way.

“The best thing is we are all working together, the three of us. It’s great. We are running ideas, all three of us. I am always learning; I have never stopped. It’s the same thing for them. It’s been great. We are working as a team, the three of us, within the team. It’s been a lot of fun.”

And it’s been working not only for the goaltenders but for the team as well.

“I think it’s been terrific,” said Reese. “It’s a little bit different than most teams. We have two No. 1 guys. But it’s a good problem to have. It’s a nice problem to have. It’s worked well so far, and we’ll just keep monitoring it to see how it goes.”

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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