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Sunday Notes: Lehtonen with ‘upper hand’ in goal for now

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

Kari Lehtonen has started seven of the past eight games for the Dallas Stars, so does that make him the number one goaltender heading down the stretch? No, not yet, according to Stars coach Lindy Ruff. But Lehtonen does have the edge right now.

“We’re still trying to go game-by-game but he’s kind of grabbed the ball a little bit,” Ruff said. “We want to see if he can gather a little bit of traction and continue to get his play where we need it. Obviously, he’s got the upper hand right now but, like I’ve said, we’ve had good play out of both guys, and we’re still going to need both guys. I’m not establishing anybody as a number one but I like the way he’s playing, and the reason he has been playing is that his game has been better than Antti’s, who is trying to find his game right now.”

It's been a rough stretch for Niemi, who looked like he had the upper hand through a good part of the season. And he had the numbers to back it up. After stopping 33 of 34 shots in a 5-1 win over Nashville on Dec. 31, Niemi was 16-6-3 with a 2.25 goals-against average and .919 save percentage. Since the calendar turned to 2016, It’s been a bumpy ride. He has a 6-6-4 record with a 3.53 goals-against average and .874 save percentage. In his past four starts, he is 0-2-1 with a 5.20 goals-against average and .842 save percentage.

Lehtonen has had his ups and downs this season, but he is 5-1-1 over his past seven starts with a 2.48 goals-against average. The only regulation loss was against Los Angeles, and he got hung out to dry by the play in front of him in that game. Toss out the Los Angeles game and he’s posted a 1.99 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in the other six starts. He was rock solid in Saturday’s 3-0 win over the Islanders, stopping 27 shots for his second shutout of the season.

“Strong,” Ruff said of Lehtonen’s recent play. “Obviously, [Saturday night] he didn’t make a mistake, and they didn’t get one by him. His play, you can put aside the one game, has been solid for us. He’s part of us trying to bring that goals-against down and try to play a more tidy game.”

Lehtonen said he isn’t focused on the talk about a number one goaltender. He is trying to keep his game tidy as the Stars battle for playoff position and get their game in order for the postseason.

“It still goes game by game. I just try to do a good job and play solid games when I get to go. That really hasn’t changed,” Lehtonen said “It’s certainly been nice to get some more starts and kind of get in a rhythm lately. I hope I can keep it up, keep helping this team and go from there.”

Despite a rash of injuries, the Dallas Stars are on a pretty good run as they head down the final stretch of the regular season. They have points in seven of their past eight games (5-1-2) and are coming off a solid 3-1-1 homestand. The Stars faced five quality opponents, including four of the top nine teams in the league and five playoff teams.

“There was some good stuff,” said goaltender Kari Lehtonen. “We had a little hiccup against Los Angeles, but overall we made strides in the right direction. We just need to keep working.”

The Stars were without three regular defensemen for the first four games of the homestand and got John Klingberg back for the final one. Forward Patrick Sharp missed three games, and forward Tyler Seguin was out the final game.

“We’ve had some guys out here lately, and other guys are getting opportunities,” said Lehtonen. “We are still a good team with the guys we have, so it’s nice to have that depth.”

The Stars got strong performances from young players Radek Faksa, Stephen Johns, Brett Ritchie, Patrick Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak during the homestand.

Ruff singled out the young players after Saturday’s win over the Islanders, specifically Faksa and Johns.

“I thought our young guys played a heck of a game,” Ruff said. “They had energy, they had physicality and the battle. Faksa went head-to-head with [Frans] Nielsen and [Kyle] Okposo, and so did Johns. Okposo is a strong player and can create his own chances, and I thought those guys did an excellent job for us.”

All five games of the recent homestand were sellouts, giving the Stars sellouts in 20 of their past 21 games at American Airlines Center. For the season, the Stars have sold out 27 of 37 home games. The average attendance for the season is 18,367 or 99.1 percent of capacity. Since mid-November, the Stars have sold out 25 of 29 games for an average attendance of 18,495 or 99.8 percent of capacity.

“It’s going to be tough, but it gives other guys in this room an opportunity to step up their game and myself included. We all need to pitch in together to fill the void.”

-Stars captain Jamie Benn on forward Tyler Seguin being out 3-4 weeks with a cut to his Achilles tendon

*The Stars had a scheduled day off Sunday.

*The Stars will practice Monday morning at 9:30 a.m. in Frisco and then hit the road for three games. They will play at Chicago (Tuesday), Arizona (Thursday) and San Jose (Saturday).

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 reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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