Stars coach Lindy Ruff rode Kari Lehtonen hard down the stretch and the Dallas goaltender admitted it was tough at times, but he was excited about the challenge considering what was at stake.
“There were some games that I didn’t feel very good physically,” Lehtonen said, “but when there is only that many games left you kind of push through because you are so excited about the opportunity.”
And Lehtonen made the most of that opportunity. With the Stars in an intense fight for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, Lehtonen played 11 of 12 games, including three sets of back-to-backs, posting an 8-3-0 record, 1.90 goals against average, .937 save percentage and two shutouts as the Stars secured the second wild card spot.
It was a step forward for the 30-year-old Lehtonen and the Stars, who have faded down the stretch over the past few seasons and missed out on a playoff spot. This time there was no fading away and Lehtonen’s play was a key reason why.
“His play has been tremendous,” said Ruff. “I put a pretty big workload on him from the start of the season, saying you are going to be the guy. We are going to play you back-to-back and we are going to expect you to play some long stretches. I think he has answered every call. He came back sooner from a couple of injuries maybe than he would have normally. I think that is the toughness that he is starting to show. He wanted to be the guy in there making the difference and I thought he did a tremendous job for us.”
Despite missing two four-game stretches due to injuries this season (lower body, concussion), Lehtonen still logged 65 games this season and put up solid numbers. He was 33-20-10 with a 2.41 goals against average, .919 save percentage and five shutouts. The wins, goals against average and save percentage were all second-best marks in his career. The five shutouts were a career-high. Watch the saves of the year highlights and you’ll see Lehtonen a few times.
“He’s been outstanding. He’s a guy I am really proud of,” said Stars GM Jim Nill. “When I met Kari at the end of last season when I came on board, we talked about a commitment, getting in shape and he’s going to have to be the guy. He’s done it. He came to camp in great shape and he’s been rewarded for it. He’s put the team on his back.”
Lehtonen’s made a lot of strides since the Stars acquired him from Atlanta for defenseman Ivan Vishnevskiy and a fourth-round draft pick in February 2010. Lehtonen, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 NHL Draft, had never quite lived up to expectations with the Thrashers due to a rash of injuries. But the move to Dallas brought a stronger commitment to conditioning and a dedication to become a better goaltender. He shed weight and his conditioning improved. So did his play in goal. It all added up to Lehtonen becoming a consistent force in goal for the Stars.
“It is huge. It is huge,” Stars goaltending coach Mike Valley said of Lehtonen’s progress. “He’s always had skill, but now you see the maturity, the game management, the consistency day in and day out and how to handle pressure situations. He’s always been good for us, he’s always been one of our top players but now you see players like him and Benny (Jamie Benn) put the team on their backs and help guide us to where we need to go. It’s a huge step for all the guys.”
Now, there is another test on the horizon: the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This won’t be Lehtonen’s first time in the NHL’s postseason tournament. He played two games for Atlanta in 2007, allowing 11 goals as the Thrashers were swept by the New York Rangers.
“I didn’t know what to expect. It was a different animal,” Lehtonen said of the 2007 experience. “Now I’ve grown up and it was such a long time ago. I think I am going to be better prepared this time and hopefully I can do very well.”
Lehtonen and the Stars believe what he’s been through this season will help in that preparation. He played big games at the Olympics, helping Finland secure a bronze medal in Sochi. There was also the stretch drive to get the Stars in the playoffs, which was just like the playoffs with its high pressure games.
“To be in those must-win game situations all the time, that’s a whole new level you put on an athlete’s shoulders when he is dealing with that type of thing,” said Valley. “He has obviously faced that before, but now he was calm about it and kept everything simple. He played the way he needed to play. He controlled his mind as well, he didn’t overthink things. He took it one game at a time and didn’t worry about things that are out of his control.”
And Lehtonen said all that has helped give him a shot of confidence as he and the Stars prepare to take on the Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the playoffs.
“I think every time you get put into tough situations and if you are able to do well, it gives me confidence,” said Lehtonen. “The last couple weeks when we’ve been really trying to make the playoffs and every game is huge, I feel good that I have been able to play well, help this team and stay calm there and get some wins.”
Helping the team get wins down the stretch and push them into the playoffs was seen the next step for Lehtonen, and he doesn’t want to stop there.
“It was the next step and what I needed to do,” he said. “I was happy that I was able to help and play a lot of games. That was a first step and now we have to take some more steps.”
And Lehtonen and his teammates will get that opportunity starting Wednesday in Anaheim.
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 DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge