“I’m still the same guy, but I was able to be there in a winning series for the first time, and that’s important,” Lehtonen said. “It’s a good experience, and it’s good that I have had it.”
Lehtonen came into this year’s playoffs with a spotty postseason record. He had played in only eight playoff games, posting a 2-6 record with a 3.88 goals-against average and .874 save percentage. In 2007, he went 0-2 when the Atlanta Thrashers were swept by the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. In 2014, he went 2-4 as the Stars were ousted in the first round by the Anaheim Ducks.
But this year he found himself on the other side of the result as the Stars won their first-round series against Minnesota, going 3-1 with a 2.27 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. He won Games 1, 2 and 6 for the Stars. Antti Niemi, who won Game 4, went 1-1 in the series with a 3.36 goals-against average and .877 save percentage.
“I liked our goaltending. It gave us a chance to win the series,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “I think the thing that you’ve got to realize with [Lehtonen], this is his first [series] win, too.”
For Lehtonen, his play in the postseason is an extension of how he ended the regular season.
“I feel my game has been in a good place for the last two and a half months, so I think that gives me confidence,” Lehtonen said. “Then, when you have confidence, and you get that result, it tells me to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Lehtonen had some ups and downs over the course of this season as he and Niemi split time in the Dallas net, but over the last part of the season, he started to put his game together. He finished the regular season on a 6-1-0 run with a 2.01 goals-against average and .924 save percentage.
“As the year goes on, you get comfortable with things,” Lehtonen said. “I’ve been working on new stuff with the goalie coach. Everything is coming together now, and that’s excellent.”
And now it’s onto his first venture into the second round. The Stars will face a stiff challenge in the St. Louis Blues. Of course, the Stars goaltending rotation is always a work in progress and the Game 1 starter is still up in the air. But Lehtonen put up good numbers against the Blues this season, posting a 1-0-1 record with a 0.99 goals-against average and .955 save percentage.
“Every game is a new battle,” Lehtonen said, “so you just want to prepare and be ready for a new game and a new challenge.”
Stars captain Jamie Benn hasn’t seen a lot of playoff action in his career, but he is putting together a nice postseason résumé.
Benn has registered points in each of the Stars six games in the 2016 playoffs (4 goals, 6 assists) and he has picked up points in 11 of the 12 playoff games he has played in his two playoff appearances, registering 15 points (8 goals, 7 assists).
So, do the playoffs bring out the best in Benn?
“It’s fun to be part of the playoffs. It’s a time you can raise your level of play as an individual,” Benn said. “It’s the best time of the year, the most fun games to play, the most competitive and it’s exciting tight hockey. It’s probably a little more aggressive than the regular season, which fits into my game pretty well.”
Heading into Wednesday’s games, Benn’s 10 points were tops in this year’s playoffs.
Steve Ott played 566 games with the Dallas Stars and another 34 in the playoffs, including 18 in the Stars’ run to the Western Conference Finals in 2008. Ott, now with the St. Louis Blues, is looking forward to facing his old team in the second round of the 2016 playoffs.
Ott’s last season with the Stars was 2011-12, so there are several of his former teammates still playing for Dallas.
“It's exciting. Obviously, I've played with a lot of those guys that are still on that team and to have an opportunity to play against them in the playoffs is something that I'm really looking forward to,” Ott told St. Louis media Wednesday. “But there's no friends when that playoff series starts, and I would expect the same thing from them. You go out there, and you battle hard, and you definitely want to have the upper hand.”
Ott missed a lot of this season due to a hamstring injury and then had a bout with colitis. But he returned for Game 3 of the Blues’ first-round series against Chicago, playing on the fourth line.
“For us as a line, I thought we gave some pretty quality shifts, especially in that Game 7,” Ott said. “I thought we came out and played a hard game for what we got.”
Ott is one of the game’s best agitators, and the Stars have their own agitator in Antoine Roussel. Ott and Roussel could be a game within the game throughout the series.
“He's a good player, guys. He's a fast, energy type of player and I think every team has one of those guys if you look around the league,” Ott said. “If it was [Chicago’s Andrew] Shaw last series, it's Roussel this series, he brings a spark to that hockey club. He's a good player. You've got to be knowing when he's on the ice, knowing what he’s going to do, but whistle to whistle is where we're taking this thing.”
The Stars took Wednesday off. They will practice Thursday morning at 10:30 a.m. in Frisco.
The Blues held an optional practice in St. Louis Wednesday. They’ll practice in St. Louis Thursday and then fly to Dallas.
Game 1 is Friday night at American Airlines Center.
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.