There’s officially no doubt about it, Kari Lehtonen
is definitely back to his old, pre-injury self. The Finnish-born goaltender heads into Tuesday’s game with Phoenix fresh off a 34-save performance where he stopped all but one shot in a 2-1 win over the Wild on Saturday at American Airlines Center, but he also denied two of three Minnesota shootout attempts.
His latest victory means he now has won his last three starts, a successful run that came after he dropped four straight before putting that streak to an abrupt halt with his first shutout of the season in a 1-0 win over Anaheim on Jan. 24, Dallas’ last game before the NHL All-Star break.
Lehtonen’s recent run of good form puts his season record at 19-11-1 and gives him a goals-against-average of 2.38. And seeing his No. 1 netminder return to the stellar form he displayed before he missed 12 games with a groin injury earlier this season is definitely music to the ears of Stars first-year head coach Glen Gulutzan.
“I think it took him a couple games to get himself back. The last three or four games he played, he was real, real sharp, so I think he’s back to where he needs to be,” Gulutzan said. “I think everybody is.”
Saturday’s win over Minnesota, a team the Stars are battling with for a playoff spot in the Western Conference, was Lehtonen’s third straight win in what was his 13th game after returning from the aforementioned injury, which he suffered on Nov. 26, 2011 at Phoenix. He didn’t return to the net for Dallas until Dec. 29, 2011 against Columbus and right away, it was clear there was some rust to be worked through.
“I don’t feel like I’ve played at the level I’m capable of (since my return),” Lehtonen said. “It was hard, the first few games getting used to playing again, trusting my body and getting more comfortable. But I think in the later part, I started feeling normal again and had some good games. “Overall I wasn’t satisfied with the way things went. So now I’m really excited to play better.”
He definitely delivered on that promise on Saturday night at the AAC. But it was his 33-save performance several nights earlier in a 6-2 win over Anaheim at the Honda Center that had he and his teammates seeing the benefits of being well-rested following the All-Star break.
“Yeah, it was nice to have a few days to not do anything. Now we’re excited and ready to go again,” Lehtonen said.
Now that he’s put together a string of three consecutive strong performances in goal for the Stars, he hopes that’s only the beginning as he and his teammates make a push toward ending a postseason dry spell that has now reached three straight years.
“I’ll have to put more of those good games in a row there. That’s what I’m trying to do,” Lehtonen said. “It’s going to be a little different game the first time after the break. Everybody’s trying to find themselves. Hopefully we can do it better than them.”
Dallas now has 31 games remaining in the regular season. Lehtonen started the Stars’ final 33 games of the regular season last year under then head coach Marc Crawford. But Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk stated before the season that seeing a repeat of that this year would be highly unlikely. And now that Dallas has a consistent and solid No. 2 goaltender in the young but talented Richard Bachman
, this veteran between the pipes knows he figures to get his fair share of rest in the final stages of the regular season.
“We’ll see how it goes but I don’t think I will play that many games. I think everyone in this room and the coaching staff really feels good about Bachman,” Lehtonen said. “I’m sure he’s going to be out there and do a good job. We just both have to play really well to give this team a chance to make the playoffs.”
And there is already proof that things will be different this time around for the veteran goaltender as Bachman has already logged one start in the second half, getting the nod in last Thursday’s loss at San Jose on the second night of a back-to-back.