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Lehtonen Inching Closer to Return

by Steve Hunt / Dallas Stars

Kari Lehtonen

A familiar face was back on the practice ice at the Dr. Pepper Star Center in Frisco on Thursday-Stars starting goaltender Kari Lehtonen. The 28-year-old netminder has missed the last 10 games after suffering a groin injury in a loss at Phoenix on Nov. 26, which forced him to leave six minutes in against the Coyotes.

During his absence, rookie Richard Bachman and Andrew Raycroft have filled in for the Finnish goaltender. And while Lehtonen returning to practice is clearly a big step, his return to game action might not come for about another week, but Stars fans should see No. 32 back between the posts before the end of 2011.

“Yeah, he’s right on track. He’ll be a game player for us after Christmas at some point before the new year, somewhere in that six-day block [between Dec. 26 and 31],” Dallas head coach Glen Gulutzan said after practice on Thursday.

Prior to his injury, Lehtonen had been rock solid in goal for the Stars, with a 13-4-1 record and a 2.34 goals-against-average in his 19 games. With numbers like that and the fact that he is such a stabilizing force for the Dallas back end, his head coach would definitely prefer to see him back ASAP, but then again, he’s not about to rush his No. 1 netminder back too soon and possibly re-aggravate the same injury.

“It’s going to be whenever we feel he’s ready. So we’re not going to pick the game,” Gulutzan said. “He’s a great goaltender, so we don’t have to dance around any of the games. If he’s ready, we’re going to play him.”

When asked how his first practice went, Lehtonen said it went well and that is was fun being back on the ice with his teammates. But he went on to add that he didn’t think he’d be ready in time for the game at St. Louis on Monday, Dec. 26.

“It was fun. It wasn’t as easy as I was hoping. Hopefully tomorrow I can do a little bit better,” he said. “I can’t say right now [when I’ll be back]. Probably that St. Louis game comes a little bit fast for me, probably after that.”

Since he is likely not going to be in goal against the Blues come Monday, that would leave two possibilities for him to return before the end of the year, next Thursday against Columbus or Saturday when reigning Stanley Cup champion Boston visits American Airlines Center.

When asked if he could envision himself returning against the Bruins, the affable goaltender admitted he didn’t even know the Stars host the B’s on the final day of ’11.

“No, I didn’t even know we played against Boston. I don’t look that far [ahead],” Lehtonen said. “I just look what’s going on the next couple of games. Hopefully I can be ready to play against Columbus but it’s still too early to say. This was my first practice. We’ll see. I just have to work hard and be ready.”

Someone else who isn’t about to look ahead is Stars goaltending coach Mike Valley, who was pleased with how his No. 1 netminder fared during Thursday’s session. But like Gulutzan and Lehtonen, he is approaching the whole situation with a healthy dose of guarded optimism as to when exactly the talented Finn will return to the crease for Dallas.

“He was solid [on Thursday]. Obviously, there’s a big difference between going out and doing goalie drills and all of a sudden, you have guys coming at you and shooting,” Valley said. He did great. He did really good. It’s going to take probably three or four solid practices for him to get comfortable but today was a good start.”

But if one statement summed up the organization’s approach when it comes to not rushing their top goaltender back, it would have to be this one. “I think right now it’s a day-to-day approach. The last thing you want to do is rush anything,” Valley said. “The best thing to do is to be smart.”

And even though Stars fans who had hoped to see Kari Lehtonen return to the Dallas goal before Christmas won’t see those wishes come true, it’s very likely that the Finnish-born netminder will return before the end of 2011, which could make for a very Happy New Year indeed not just for the fans but for his coaches and teammates.

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