With usual starting goaltender Kari Lehtonen
hobbled by lower body tightness, Raycroft has stepped into the void and provided strong netminding over the past four games for the Dallas Stars.
It’s been quite a while since the Stars have had the luxury of possessing two goalies who could each be counted upon for sustained excellence over a significant stretch of games while the other one is sidelined by injury. They’re happy they have it now.
After surrendering four goals on 24 shots in a loss to the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks last Wednesday in Chicago, Raycroft delivered an outstanding 22-save effort in a 2-1 shootout victory over Carolina at home on Friday. He also sparkled in the shootout, denying all three Hurricanes shooters.
And even though he surrendered five goals and was pulled midway through the third period of Saturday night’s 5-2 loss in Phoenix, Raycroft still made 25 saves, several of the spectacular variety, to keep the game from getting too out of hand. Then he followed that up with a masterful 31-save performance Monday in a 3-2 shootout win in San Jose, giving him two crucial shootout victories in a span of three games.
“You watch video and you try to get an idea of what guys’ tendencies are and that’s always been an advantage for us,” said Raycroft, who has now stopped five-of-six shooters in the tie-breaker this year. “Obviously, if you don’t guess right, they’ll make you look ugly, but at that point, you’re just trying to put pressure on them as the shooter. Don’t let anything through you, make them make a great move or a great shot and let our shooters do the rest.”
In each of those shootout triumphs, Raycroft also made spectacular glove saves late in tied games - stopping Carolina’s Joe Corvo in overtime and denying San Jose captain Patrick Marleau late in the third period - to allow the Stars to claim the all-important extra points in the penalty shot competition. Considering how close the Western Conference standings are these days, those points could end up being the difference between making the playoffs or missing them.
“You can’t understate the importance of how good he was (against Carolina),” coach Marc Crawford said. “He needed to be good. Not only the great save at the end of overtime, but during the game, he was confident, he was comfortable, he moved the puck. It was a huge two points for us.”
The 30-year-old veteran of 250-plus NHL games has been demonstrating just why the Stars targeted him as a free agent last July and signed him to a two-year contract. After beating out Brent Krahn for the backup job in training camp, Raycroft has been outstanding when called upon, which wasn’t often prior to Lehtonen’s injury.
Starting just two of the season’s first 19 contests and four of the first 26, Raycroft has now virtually doubled his season’s workload with this recent stretch. Overall on the season, he owns a 5-3-0 record, with one shutout, an excellent 2.31 goals-against average and a strong .925 save percentage.
“We are looking to Raycroft, and this is a situation exactly why you have an experienced guy like Andrew Raycroft,” noted Crawford. “He’s been in a position like this many times in his career, he’s been a number one goalie. So that’s great when you’ve got your goaltender playing as well as Andrew Raycroft has played for us.”
Over the course of his 10 NHL seasons, Raycroft has fulfilled a variety of roles. He’s served as a number one (playing a career-high 72 games for Toronto in 2007-08), a backup (suiting up just 21 times as Roberto Luongo’s number two in Vancouver last season), and everything in between. He also won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year for Boston back in 2003-04 when he posted a minuscule 2.05 goals-against average and a.926 save percentage.
It is that cache of experience that Raycroft leans on now when the Stars need him.
“You just work hard and stop the puck in practice, it translates into games,” the 6-foot-1, 178-pound Raycroft said. “You work hard every day and you want to play well for the guys and have them have confidence in you and not have them feel like we’re just mailing it in when I’m in there. I want to give everyone a chance and so far, so good.”
Crawford pointed to the Carolina game as evidence of just how much Raycroft has helped the club gain confidence in him.
“Most of the time, your goaltending gives the team a sense of security and that’s what Kari has done so well for us this year,” Crawford said. “Our guys have really built a great deal of confidence in him, and for Andrew to come in and play as well as he has, that’s his fourth ‘A’ performance for us this year and he played six games (to that point). Not too many other players you can point to and say for every six games you’ve played this year, you’ve gotten ‘A’ marks in four from your coaching staff, so it’s a real good confidence booster again for us. The performance in the shootout was just exactly what we needed.”
His teammates certainly aren’t concerned about Raycroft stepping into the crease in Lehtonen’s absence, and they’re not surprised with how well he has played.
“He’s had some good years in the NHL. People forget that,” noted center Brad Richards, who connected for the shootout game-winning goal in each of the shootout victories. “He’s 30 years old, knows his way around the NHL and knows how important these games are for him to come in and help this team. He’s been a great teammate, a great addition. He’s a good goalie. He can play these games no problem. We’re fully confident. We’d rather both of them be healthy and have a choice but we’re very confident going into the games.”
While the timeline for Lehtonen’s return is still uncertain, the Stars aren’t worried, because they know that Raycroft will be ready to deliver another strong effort whenever they need one from him. Plus, Raycroft’s presence in net means the Stars don’t have to rush Lehtonen back.
“It’s a situation where daily he makes improvement and we’re also in a position where it’s prudent to be cautious and give him time to nip this in the bud and let his body heal,” Crawford said of Lehtonen. “His body’s telling him right now it needs some time, and that’s exactly what we’re giving him.”
And as Lehtonen’s condition continues to improve, the Stars will breathe easy knowing another capable goaltender in Raycroft is ready and available.