One of their key glue guys since he first joined the club way back in 1995-96, Lehtinen, 35, sat out 28 of the Stars’ first 31 games with two separate injuries, and after a few contests where he was still re-gaining his bearings, he seems to be back to his old self lately.
After coming through with a big third period goal Saturday against Los Angeles that tied the game 1-1, Lehtinen helped set up Mike Ribeiro
’s go-ahead goal with 1:12 remaining, once again coming through in the clutch. That performance gave him a modest three-game point streak, and after picking up an assist on Ribeiro’s second goal Wednesday night in Florida, has five points (one goal, four assists) in the last five games.
“I feel better. Every game I get more of everything back and the legs going,” said Lehtinen, who has two goals and 10 points in 17 overall games this year. “It was a pretty long break I didn’t play. Of course, I didn’t expect it was going to be there right away, but of course, you want to, when you start playing, you want to be on top right away, and play your game how you can. It was pretty tough, a little frustrating sometimes, but at the same time, what can you do? You just try to play hard every day and trust it’s coming. Overall, I feel, it’s not there yet, but it’s getting there. I feel more comfortable overall and I hope it stays that way.”
“His level of the things he does within the game has been around for awhile, but it’s just nice to see him - he’s getting chances, it’s nice to see him capitalize on a chance,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said Sunday. “He just does all those things because that’s the kind of player he is, but when he can contribute where it makes a lot of difference on the scoreboard, I think that’s where he gets frustrated when he’s not doing it. So from our end, he’s been playing very well, he just hasn’t capitalized on chances. It’s nice to see him get an opportunity and that was a big goal for us, a really big goal, so hopefully he can continue. He’s been kind of a streaky scorer, so if he can get on a streak, it’ll be good for us.”
A highly-respected two-way player who is a three-time Selke Trophy winner as the NHL’s best defensive forward (1998, ‘99, 2003), which ties former teammate and current Montreal Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau for second-most ever, Lehtinen has also produced consistently at the other end of the rink. His 233 career goals rank seventh on the club’s all-time list and his seven 20-goal seasons are the third-most in franchise history, while his total of 36 game-winning goals sits third on that list. He’s also 10th in points (483), fifth in games played (786), and seventh in power play goals (74).
Heading into 2008-09 with high expectations after advancing to the Western Conference Finals last spring, the Stars struggled to a 5-7-2 record out of the gate, spending some time in the Western Conference basement, while Lehtinen sat out the season’s first 14 games with an undisclosed injury.
He returned Nov. 11 and scored a goal in a 3-2 shootout loss to Los Angeles. But just two games later, the hard-luck Lehtinen suffered an upper body injury, which forced him to the sidelines for 14 more contests.
It was a frustrating time for the 13-year veteran, especially after he missed 33 games last season with a sports hernia.
“It’s tough,” Lehtinen admitted. “That’s the thing, it’s more mentally. You can’t play and you have to rehab and it’s tough. It’s not easy, but over the years, you kind of get used to it a little bit, how to handle it - you learn what happened before when you were injured and try to just mentally think right away and believe you’re going to get healthy one day. You learn over the years how not to push too hard and when you come back, you’re ready and you can play through it, and you try to be positive, too. But it’s not easy.”
After making it back into the lineup Dec. 20 at Ottawa, Lehtinen gradually worked his way back with just two assists in his first give games. Then he was shifted onto a line with Ribeiro and grinder Steve Ott
, and began producing more offense, totaling six points in his next seven contests. With Lehtinen rounding back into his usual form, the team has fashioned a 7-4-3 record with him heading into the All-Star break, and have climbed back into the thick of the playoff race, sitting just four points back of the eighth and final playoff spot.
“To have him on my line now, I cannot complain,” said Ribeiro, who just scored his first career hat trick Wednesday in Florida. “He can score, he’s always scored. I think his forecheck creates a lot of turnovers and bobbled pucks and stops and starts, he does everything that you’re supposed to do right. It shows everyone how to do it and how to play it. If we can follow him, I think we can be a pretty good team.”
As Ribeiro indicates, Lehtinen’s value goes far beyond the scoresheet and his absence early in the season created a major void.
“I didn’t realize until I got here last year how great a hockey player he is, very underrated and very quiet,” noted center Brad Richards, acquired from Tampa last February. “His work ethic is unbelievable and how he does so many little things in the game that go unnoticed unless you’re playing with him or on the same team. He’s a great player. We’re very fortunate - we didn’t have him at all this year and you forget how valuable and how much you missed him until he got back. He’s a great player, a great person, a great example for everybody, how he works.”
“He’s a leader, he’s a quiet leader, more by examples and work ethic that he shows his leadership,” added Ribeiro, now in his third season with the Stars. “He brings all the level of the other guys up a notch. Seeing him playing, you want to do the same and work as hard. He’s a huge part of our team and I think he’s been a big part of this team since I’ve been here and way before I got here.”
One recent play that epitomizes Lehtinen’s skill occurred last Thursday in the Stars’ 5-4 shootout loss to Buffalo, when Lehtinen’s subtle assist helped set up Matt Niskanen’s first period goal.
“A perfect example is the game before on Niskanen’s goal,” Tippett explained. “Ott steps out (from behind the net), wants to make the play, gets knocked down, but Lehts with his stick, he just lunges enough to poke it by (the defenseman right to a wide open Niskanen, who scored). It’s something that goes unnoticed, it looks like Otter stepped out and made an unbelievable pass, but it wouldn’t have got there without Lehts and his stick. That’s the kind of thing that he does.”
And he’s been doing it for a long time. Lehtinen, the fourth-round selection (88th overall) of the Minnesota North Stars way back in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft, is one of the few links left to the club’s only Stanley Cup championship in 1999, a playoff year in which he scored 10 goals in 23 games. Over the course of his career, Lehtinen has compiled 27 goals and 49 points in 108 post-season games, including four goals and eight points in 14 games last spring before another injury forced him out of the Red Wings series in Game 2.
“He’s one of those guys that you watch in a game right now, all the situations in a game that he touches and they’re all critical situations,” Tippett said. “You look at the penalty kill, you look at the power play stuff, end of periods, end of games, where he has - it might not be a scoring chance, it might be just him making sure the game doesn’t go against us. It’s not him alone, but he’s just such an intelligent player, his work ethic is second to none and he gets the job done. He’s as solid a player as there is right now.”
“He hasn’t played a lot of hockey in the last little while here, out with injuries,” added Richards. “That’s tough for anybody to jump back in the middle of the season, when you’re in the grind of a playoff hunt, but he’s handled it well. He does so many little things well that going unnoticed, it’s not just about scoring goals with him.”
With season-ending injuries to captain Brenden Morrow
and defenseman Sergei Zubov, the Stars figure to benefit from more offensive contributions from Lehtinen, not to mention his defensive awareness, leadership in the locker room and other intangibles, as they make a push for the playoffs down the stretch.