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Lehtonen rounding into form for Stars

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

It’s not often that following an 8-2 victory, many observers are talking about the goaltending.

But that was the case Tuesday night, because the most impressive performance of the Dallas Stars’ big win over the Western Conference-leading San Jose Sharks at the American Airlines Center belonged to goaltender Kari Lehtonen.

Lehtonen was simply outstanding in his first home start in a Dallas uniform, making a stunning 45 saves, including a sparkling skate stop on Dany Heatley in the third period. The win was the 95th triumph of Lehtonen’s NHL career and first as a Star, as he was named the game’s first star even though two teammates scored four points each.

It was a sweet moment for the 26-year-old Finnish netminder, who was making just his fourth appearance of the season following two off-season back surgeries and a Feb. 9 trade from Atlanta to Dallas.

“I thought we were really good in all areas tonight. It starts with your goaltender, and that was a terrific performance by Kari Lehtonen,” Stars coach Marc Crawford said after the game. “I think you see a little bit more of what our organization saw in him. He had a lot more energy tonight. He gave our group confidence.”

The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Lehtonen appreciated the offensive support, especially the goal by Brad Richards that gave the Stars their first lead after one period since before Lehtonen was acquired, a span of 11 games.

“That was huge,” admitted Lehtonen, who had surrendered nine goals on 54 shots in his three previous appearances for the Stars. “I’ve been here now maybe eight games, and I was thinking before the game that every game, the other team has scored first. It’s kind of the mindset - I really wanted to see us score first and that happened, so I think that helped everybody and gave everybody a boost. That was nice.”

For a guy still working his way back into shape after such a long layoff, Tuesday night provided a big injection of much-needed confidence. It also earned him another start in the Stars’ next contest, a match-up with Philadelphia Thursday night (7:30 pm, FSSW) at the American Airlines Center.

“A huge night, he needed that,” noted Stars goaltending coach Mike Valley. “I think when you get back into it like he has been doing, you can practice well, but it’s not the same as getting out there in the game. He just went out there and just made a couple of huge saves early on, which you could see kind of build momentum for him. It was just a great night for him.”

Lehtonen indicated that his back, which had troubled him for some time while in Atlanta, felt fine after the game.

“It’s the best it’s been,” said Lehtonen, who was selected second overall by Atlanta in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, directly after Columbus superstar Rick Nash. “I don’t know if it’s 100 percent. I think it needs a few more games, but it was a huge step in the right direction, and it was nice to see that I’m able to play at this level again, so that was great.”

As for his fitness level, which Lehtonen acknowledged was not quite up to par in his only other start, a 6-3 defeat in Pittsburgh March 6, it has improved significantly since he’s arrived in Dallas. Getting into game shape was one area that Valley and Stars’ strength and conditioning coach J.J. McQueen targeted for extra attention and over the last five weeks, Lehtonen’s hard work has paid off. 

“I can’t go as long and as hard as I would like to, but there was so much emotion in there, so I didn’t feel that I was tired at all,” said Lehtonen, who has remained injury-free for just one of his five full NHL seasons. “Probably tomorrow, I’ll feel tired.  It’s good I was able to hang on there and we were able to get two points.”

“A lot of it obviously stems from his conditioning, and just getting back in the rhythm of things,” Valley said. “He managed to really keep himself in a spot today where he was able to make recovery saves a lot quicker than, say, against Pittsburgh. So after the first shot, he could put himself in position to get prepared for the second shot or the rebound opportunity. He really covered the ice really well, and while he’s down on the ice, he shifted back and forth real well. It was a lot of small things like that, that basically come out of conditioning, because when you get tired, that’s when mistakes happen. He was able to hold that level a lot higher (Tuesday).”

The Stars desperately needed a big performance from everyone, including their goaltender, as they’d sunk to the fringes of the Western Conference playoff race with a 1-5-1 record following the Olympic break. But the win over the Sharks provided a major boost to club morale, while also keeping their post-season hopes alive.

“He’s a big body, he covers a lot of net,” captain Brenden Morrow, who scored two goals and two assists Tuesday night, said of Lehtonen. “A highly-touted guy, drafted high, we’re looking forward to him being healthy and in game-shape, and he played well for us (Tuesday). A lot of big saves at key times of the game, where momentum could have been swayed the other way, but he found a way.”

“A lot of good things happened, we had lots of life in our room tonight, we needed it,” Crawford said of the triumph. “It’s a carry-over of the goaltending playing well. The guys recognize the importance, that this is our playoffs right now, and we have to strive for everything we can get.”

And looking at the big picture, with the contract status of number one goalie Marty Turco uncertain after this season, it was important for the Stars to see Lehtonen be successful, since he will most likely be their netminder of the future.

“It’s nice if that’s the case, but I have a lot to prove for myself and I want to get back to be a great goalie in this league,” Lehtonen said. “If I’m able to do that, I’m sure I’ll help this club a lot.”

As for Turco, he and Lehtonen have already developed a good rapport in the five weeks since they’ve been partners in the Dallas crease. 

“He’s been great.  I’ve been going to him and asking him a lot of questions and he’s always willing to help,” Lehtonen said of the 34-year-old Turco, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent July 1. “It’s been great for me and also, it’s been nice in practice and in games, watching him, one of the elite goalies in the league, watching the things he does and trying to learn.”

“Both of them are just real true professionals, just very supportive to one another,” Valley added. “Marty is just a class act, he’s always been that way. And for Lehts, everything is kind of new to him, but both of them get along very well.”

It would figure that Lehtonen should get more action as the regular season winds down. With 13 more to play, his workload should increase as he continues to get in better shape and demonstrate the type of ability he showed Tuesday night. 

“I’m happy with whatever I get and I’ll try to show in those games that I belong here,” Lehtonen said. “It’s been going in the right direction, but there’s still a ways to go.” 

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