After missing the last five games with a lower body injury, Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen will be back in goal when the Dallas Stars take on the Calgary Flames Thursday night at American Airlines Center.
The Stars have struggled since Lehtonen went out of the lineup, and Stars coach Lindy Ruff said the return of the team’s No. 1 goaltender will be a big boost.
“It means a lot,” Ruff said. “You need your goaltender to play big for you, and I think he gives your team a lot of confidence.”
The Stars lost four of five games with Lehtonen on the shelf and they surrendered 22 goals, including one empty-netter, during that stretch. You can’t pin it all on the goaltenders who filled in for Lehtonen – Dan Ellis and Jack Campbell – because they didn’t get a lot of help from the guys in front of them at times.
“Dan and Jack have come in and played great, but for the long haul you still need your No. 1 goalie,” said Stars GM Jim Nill.
And there’s a reason Lehtonen is the No. 1 guy.
“The saves he can make by just size alone, by blocking net,” said Ruff. “Some of the redirections that have gone in, they are not bad goals, but a bigger goalie that is playing a little bit bigger ice and that understands what’s coming at him and is a little bit more experienced … Kari understands where to be on some of those.”
And there’s more to Lehtonen’s play than just stopping the puck.
“The way he’s played the puck is an efficient part of our game,” said Ruff, who has pushed Lehtonen to beef up his puckhandling skills.
“It’s an area I wanted him to focus on this summer,” Ruff said. “I thought through the preseason, he’s done a lot better job with it. I think it is something that is a real effective tool when it comes to breaking out of your zone.”
There’s nothing fancy about Lehtonen’s handling of the puck, but he’s made big strides in that area over the past couple years.
“I’m no (Marty) Turco or (Marty) Brodeur, but I just try to make the best decisions I can,” Lehtonen said. “I try not to overplay it too much and not go there if I don’t know what I am supposed to do with the puck.”
And Lehtonen’s ability to play the puck is something his defensemen appreciate as well.
“He’s pretty good. He’s gotten a lot better,” said Stars defenseman Stephane Robidas. “He makes strong plays and doesn’t make any soft plays where he puts the D in a bad position. Whenever he makes a play it is a good, strong play. It’s nice for us to know that.”
Lehtonen’s been out since October 11, when he was injured late in the second period of the Stars’ 4-1 win at Winnipeg. The fact that he’s not missing a lot of time has a lot to do with the hard work he’s put in on the conditioning front over the last few years.
“In the past it has taken three weeks to a month to recover, and now it is ten days,” Lehtonen said. “I have to do more work so it doesn’t happen in the first place. We’re going to try to do some new tricks and learn every time something goes wrong.”
It’s never easy sitting out and watching, especially when the team struggles and there is nothing you can do to help.
“As a member of the team you always want to be out there and be the difference maker,” said Lehtonen. “That’s always hard, to just watch and be a fan. It’s a different mentality than being out there and playing. I can’t wait to get back out there.”
And the hope is he’ll return to the level where he was when he went out with the injury. He’s won two of his three starts this season and has posted an impressive 1.57 goals against average and .953 save percentage.
“I felt really good. Hopefully, I am able to get going and start where I left off. That will be great,” said Lehtonen. “We’ll see. Every game is a new challenge, anything can happen. I just have to prepare myself so when I get back there I can do a good job.”
That’s what the Stars are counting on, and that will be a big boost as the Stars try to get on track.
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.