After missing the last 12 games due to a groin injury, Dallas Stars fans will get a belated Christmas gift on Thursday night against Columbus as Kari Lehtonen
returns to goal for the first time since Nov. 26 at Phoenix.
In the 19 games he’s been between the posts for Dallas, the Finnish goaltender is a solid 13-4-1 with a 2.34 goals-against-average. The Stars are 7-10-0 when he’s not between the pipes and after several strong practices this week, the head coach made it official on Wednesday.
“[Lehtonen] is ready to go. He’ll get the start tomorrow and I think it’s the right time to do all this and he’s ready,” Glen Gulutzan said.
With Lehtonen’s former back-up, Andrew Raycroft, being placed on waivers on Wednesday, that means rookie Richard Bachman
, who was 5-2-0 as the de facto starter for much of Lehtonen’s absence, is now the club’s No. 2 netminder.
And with the Stars’ penalty kill currently in a bit of a lull, getting their top goaltender back could help give that unit a shot in the arm. That’s because earlier in the season when the PK was rolling along, a big reason for that group’s success was strong play in goal from Lehtonen.
Those stellar performances only reinforced what his head coach already knew about the 28-year-old Finn.
“He’s that good,” Gulutzan said. “There’s no question [he’s becoming one of the best in the league]. He still has to prove it over a long haul for not only himself but for the rest of the league to take notice but you just look at those numbers and you see how valuable he is to our club. From there, the rest speaks for itself. That’s how valuable he is for us.”
But his head coach isn’t the only one who is ecstatic about seeing his top goaltender back between the pipes. The Stars players are equally excited to see Lehtonen make his return against the Blue Jackets.
“Obviously, we’ve been doing OK without him. You need your No. 1 goalie to win games and to make the playoffs,” Stars center Mike Ribeiro
said. “To have him back and rested is good for us and everyone. Obviously, he’s our best goalie and best player on the team. It’ll be great to have him back and have that big boy back there.”
While getting Lehtonen back in goal is huge for the club going forward, the Stars still have a pair of veteran defensemen, Stephane Robidas
and Sheldon Souray
, recovering from injuries of their own. Their return is still about a week or two away.
“I would say they’re both on the same time line. We’re probably looking at a week to two weeks for both of them from today,” Gulutzan said. “So somewhere within that 10-day mark, they’ll be good.”
Once Robidas and Souray are ready to roll, it could be a sign of great things to come from this club as they begin play in 2012.
“I get excited about two things-we’ve got to keep working the process. We’ve got to get healthy too,” Gulutzan said. “Having [Souray] and [Robidas] out is a big loss for our club. If you take two guys that play around 22 minutes a night, two veteran, savvy guys that give you a little bit of everything-offense, physical presence, leadership, those are big holes to fill. Hopefully this thing comes full circle in the next couple weeks and we still play good hockey. Then, when the time is right or when we need it most, we get on our run.”
Lehtonen will make his return against a club he has had considerable success against during his career. In his seven starts against the Jackets, he is 4-2-0 with a 1.56 GAA and one shutout, solid numbers indeed from a guy whose play will go a long way in helping determine if the Stars return to the playoffs in just a few months time.