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Lehtonen Getting on Roll at Right Time for Stars

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

It’s been an up and down season for Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen, and right now he is on an upswing. And it couldn’t come at a better time for the Stars, who are trying to push their way into a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

“He’s been flat-out outstanding,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “He’s said it’s been an up and down year, a tough year but these last [four] games he has been locked into his best hockey.”

Since getting called out by Ruff after the Stars 5-3 loss to Tampa Bay on Feb. 5, Lehtonen is 4-0-0 in his last four starts with a 1.49 goals-against average, .959 save percentage and one shutout. He’s stopped 139 of 145 shots during that stretch.

“I’ve just been trying to be more patient and waiting and trusting and still have the speed to make the save,” Lehtonen said, “instead of thinking what they are going to do and then I play myself out from it.” It’s a combination of many things. I’ve been feeling good, and you need some luck too.”

For the season, Lehtonen is 25-12-8 with a 2.83 goals-against average and .909 save percentage. The record is solid, but the other stats aren’t what the Stars are used to seeing from Lehtonen. He’s ranked 32nd in GAA and 30th in save percentage. Not his best season numbers-wise, but the Stars netminder acknowledge he might be playing his best hockey of the season now.

“I guess you could say that,” he said. “It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster. There have been some very good games and some very bad games. What I’ve been trying to do the last little while is stay more consistent and have OK games instead of bad games and some great games along the way there.”

Lehtonen came up big down the stretch last season as the Stars fought their way into the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. He went 10-4-0 with a 2.17 goals-against average and .929 save percentage over his final 14 games. That performance coincided with the Stars trading for goaltender Tim Thomas. This season, the Stars made a move on the goaltending front to acquire Jhonas Enroth, and Lehtonen seems to be responding again.

“It’s always a little challenge,” Lehtonen said. “Goalies are usually good friends. You build a relationship starting from the summer training and into training camp. A new guy comes in, and we have to get to know each other a little quicker. It hasn’t changed anything that I do. I like the way [Enroth] plays, and I try to learn from him every day too.”

The Stars will need another big performance from the big Finn again if they want to make the postseason a second straight year. They enter Thursday’s game against San Jose four points behind the Sharks for the final playoff spot in the West.

“We have to play one game at a time, and every game is huge at this point,” Lehtonen said. “Just be physically and mentally sharp, keep battling. There are going to be some bad times, but you have to forget about those and go at it the next night.”

And right now, Ruff said he likes what he’s seeing out of Lehtonen as the Stars head into the final 25 games of the season. The Stars coach pointed to two big saves Lehtonen made in Tuesday’s 4-1 win over St. Louis, stopping Vladimir Tarasenko and Dmitrij Jaskin on separate power plays as the Blues tried to climb back into the game.

“He was aware of where the puck was going and he was patient on the play. When he is like that, that calmness and confidence just flows through our whole team,” Ruff said. “He’s been big. We are going to need him to be big. It’s no secret.”

Hemsky questionable; Moen could be out for extended time

Forward Ales Hemsky, who has missed the past two games with a lower body injury, practiced Wednesday afternoon in Frisco, but he will be a game-time decision for Thursday night’s tilt against the San Jose Sharks at American Airlines Center.

“I’d put it 50-50,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “He hasn’t had a lot of practice time. Today was the first time he’s had any in about a week. I think putting him in tomorrow would be pressing him into duty, but it is still a possibility.”

The news is not good on forward Travis Moen, who left Tuesday night’s game in St. Louis with an upper body injury. The Stars placed him on injured reserve Wednesday afternoon.

“It looks like Travis could miss an extended period of time,” Ruff said. “We’ll just wait and see. It’s an upper body that in some situations takes a good bit of time.”

With Hemsky questionable and Moen out, the Stars have called up forward Brendan Ranford from the Texas Stars of the AHL. The 22-year-old Ranford ranks second on Texas is scoring with 36 points (13 goals, 23 assists) in 50 games. He’s tallied 24 points (nine goals, 15 assists) in his past 29 games.

Nemeth heading to AHL to get games; Nichushkin still 4-6 weeks away

Defenseman Patrik Nemeth is taking another step towards returning to the Dallas Stars by heading to the AHL to play some games with the Texas Stars. Nemeth will join Texas in Rochester, NY and is expected to play Friday night when the Stars take on the Americans.

“He’ll play in Rochester (Friday), Toronto (Saturday) and Oklahoma City (Tuesday) and we’ll see from there,” said Stars GM Jim Nill. “There are a couple more games and we’ll play it by ear.”

Nemeth has been out since Oct. 18, when he suffered a severe cut on his arm from a skate in a game against the Philadelphia Flyers. The belief at the time was that Nemeth might be done for the regular season. But here it is February, and he is getting ready to get back into game action.

“I was always looking at mid-March, but it’s even been quicker than that,” Nemeth said. “It’s really nice to start playing now. They said season-ending at first, but it feels great. I just want to play as many games as possible.”

As for forward Valeri Nichushkin, who has been out since November due to hip surgery, he still has a ways to go. He saw the doctor recently.

“He’s four to six weeks, depending on how the rehab goes,” Nill said. “We’ll go week-by-week and see how he does. It’s positive news. He’s healthy. It’s just a time frame of his body healing and getting stronger.”

Nill said in another week to ten days Nichushkin could start skating with the team.

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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