To say Kari Lehtonen
has been a workhorse this season is a gross understatement. The 27-year-old goaltender has started each of the Stars’ last 13 games and has logged a pair of shutouts, his first two since coming to Dallas, over that span.
In 59 games this year, the Finnish netminder is 30-20-9 with a 2.55 goals-against-average and the aforementioned two shutouts. Were the Stars to name a Team MVP, his name would have to be at the top of the list.
“He’s meant a great deal,” Dallas head coach Marc Crawford said. “He’s battled real hard. He’s played extremely well. He’s kept us in a lot of games. While his parents were here, he got two shutouts, his first two shutouts of the year. I think he’s playing at the top of his game right now and I couldn’t be more pleased. You need your goaltender to be a big part of the success that you’re going to have in crucial games down the stretch.”
When asked about his success this season, Lehtonen admitted he was pleased with the results to date but added his body of work is far from over.
“Well, it’s been good that I’ve been able to play this much. We’re in the most exciting time of the year,” the Stars netminder said. “It’s easy because you just want to play more and more. I guess I would say it’s been good so far but there’s more work to do.”
And at least for the club’s head coach, Lehtonen’s work with Stars goaltending coach Mike Valley has been a contributing factor to his success this season.
“I think it’s familiarity more than anything. Mike understands Kari. Kari understands Mike now,” Crawford said. “They have a good rapport with one another. They trust each other. I think anybody wants to have a specialty coach talking about specifics. They want to be on the same wavelength. The fact that Mike knows his game, where is strengths are, where his issues may be, where he needs to work, what things he likes work on and what things allow him to be at his best, that’s very important for a positional coach.”
That’s an assessment Valley wholeheartedly agrees with.
“It’s one of those things (our familiarity with one another) that I feel is pretty unique and I think he does as well. On a daily basis, you feel what he needs. You know what kinds of things he needs to work on and when he needs a little rest,” the Dallas goaltending coach said. “It just feels like you’re in tune with him and that’s important-to be able to point things out sometime to make sure we’re always trying to guide him in the right direction. I think he feels equally as comfortable knowing that I have that kind of familiarity with him.”
And Lehtonen sees considerable benefits in his game since he began working with Valley after coming over from Atlanta late last season.
“It’s been great to have a new set of eyes there. We’ve been going through a lot of things and a lot of repetition,” the Dallas goaltender said. “It’s doing more simple things and that builds confidence. Confidence is the biggest thing for a goalie to have. It’s been a big help for me.”
But the Stars goaltending coach also sees Lehtonen’s being healthy as another key reason why he’s been so rock solid in goal this year.
“In the off-season, he worked extremely hard,” Valley said. “Last year, he was coming off a season where he’s been injured the whole time and obviously, he had extra weight on him and it’s tough. When you have that back injury, there’s not much you can do except for rest and heal. It was almost like a clean slate and a fresh start. Throughout the summer, he worked extremely hard not only off the ice but on ice as well. That’s really helped him prepare himself to be able to play 60-plus games. He still has more room for improvement there as well but he’s taken a huge step and he’s going to have to continue taking big steps.”
And when asked how it feels to know he’s likely going to be starting in goal for the Stars each time he arrives at the American Airlines Center, the veteran netminder admits it’s a good feeling.
“Yeah, it helps. I don’t have to think about it,” Lehtonen said. “It’s a good thing but I have more responsibility and all that. I know I have to be there and know I have to do well to help this team. Yeah, it’s been nice.”
While no one doubts his sizeable contributions on the ice, the Finnish goaltender has a somewhat underrated sense of humor, which plays well in the Stars room.
“He’s got a dry sense of humor. It’s funny, a lot of it comes just from the language but he’s quick,” Valley said. “He is an intelligent guy not only on the ice but off it as well. He comes out with these one-line, sarcastic punch lines that just get guys cracking up. He’s a character for sure.”