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Workhorse Lehtonen Plowing Through

by Bob Matuszak / Dallas Stars

Marc Crawford was confident that he could ride goalie Kari Lehtonen hard this year. The Finnish netminder hasn't let his coach down.

Lehtonen Video Highlights
Heading into Monday's contest against the Carolina Hurricanes, Lehtonen had played in all but three of the Stars' first 22 games. That's actually on target for what Crawford envisioned Lehtonen's workload to be when the team opened training camp in September.

"I said that we'd probably use him eight of 10 games," Crawford said. "He was pretty good early and we rode him."

Lehtonen actually has been very good during the first quarter of his first full season with the Stars. Through 22 games, the just turned 27-year-old goalie had posted a 2.70 goals-against average and .912 save percentage while on a pace to play in 70 games.

Marty Turco holds the Stars franchise record for appearances by a goaltender when he played in 74 games in the 2008-09 season. Lehtonen, meanwhile, has never surpassed at any professional level the 68 games he played in during the 2006-07 in his second season with the Atlanta Thrashers.

"He's more capable of doing that now," Crawford said about Lehtonen's ability to play and play and play. "Even when he wasn't in the best condition he played a lot of games. Now he's much more conditioned."

Ironically, Lehtonen's superb conditioning is due to a serious back injury that required surgery at the start of last season. He wound up playing 12 times after the Stars acquired him in a February trade, but took his workouts and rehabilitation to another level this past summer in order to show Dallas the true product that they received.

"I think he's really made a commitment," defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "He had a great summer of training and got himself into great shape, and had a real focus from Day 1. His practice habits have been great, and he's very dependable. He's played really well for us and that's big."

Crawford also lent a hand over the summer, sending goalie coach Mike Valley out to help Lehtonen with his training.

"He got in better shape because we pushed him, but he also took responsibility," Crawford said. "To me, the real catalyst for him was the back injury. That's the worst injury to rehabilitate, and he had to do things better to keep his back in good condition. Now he's recognized that he has a great opportunity, and maturity-wise he's ready for it.
When you see him and Mike (Valley) they are like two pees in a pod. Today goalies are used to having a goalie instructor."

Despite the sweat of summer rehabilitation, perhaps Lehtonen's biggest obstacle has been keeping his brain just as in shape as his body. It's a challenge that he's learning to conquer.

"I think the hardest part is getting the mindset right," he said. "As a goalie you have to be sharp for 60 minutes in case something happens. It's something that you have to learn and something that I'm trying to focus on. That's the key if you want to play well when you play a lot.

"You have to train your mind. It's different if it's a game day or off day. On an off day you try and get your mind out of hockey so when the game day comes its easier to get excited again and get going. I spend time with my family to get away from it. It's hard to get excited about a game if you're in hockey mode all the time."

Lehtonen's shining start mirrored his team's this season, as the Stars rattled off five wins in their first six games. Over that span he faced an average of 36 shots, including three contests in which he took on over 40 shots.

"I'm trying to be more consistent, and now I'm trying to get more of the great games," Lehtonen said. "That would be ideal."

What's ideal is that Crawford has two netminders that he can now trust. Backup Andrew Raycroft, a 10-year-veteran signed as a free agent, has started three games in favor of Lehtonen, posting a shutout against Buffalo and a 2-1 win over Ottawa on Wednesday. In his lone loss he surrendered five goals to Colorado, but still wound up with 40 saves.

"You get used to it," Raycroft, who owns a sparkling 1.85 GAA, said of his light workload. "You just try to see as many pucks as you can in practice, stop them, and hope it translates into the game. We've had a pretty light schedule, and haven't had too many back-to-backs and three-in-fours and stuff like that. Kari's just played great for us. He gets wins and is doing a great job."

Lehtonen came within three minutes of recording his first shutout as a Star in the sixth game of the season at Florida, and was solid when he needed to be in Dallas' thrilling 5-4 overtime win over San Jose on Nov. 18, a game where the Stars fell behind by a pair of goals with 13 minutes to go in regulation.

"Last year we got a taste of his potential, and this year he's just been tremendous," Niskanen said. "He competes on every puck and is fundamentally sound. You don't have to worry when you have a goalie that is playing really solid behind you. The whole team has confidence in him, and he's given the whole team confidence to do what we need to do with the puck. We don't have to be nervous."

Lehtonen admits that this season is miles better already than last year when he came in so late. Soft spoken and reserved, it took some time for him to get acclimated to his new surroundings

"Last year I was really trying to find myself, but this year Dallas feels like home, and the team feels like my team," he said. "It's good. You have to be comfortable off the ice in order to be comfortable on the ice."

So far, the Stars are reaping the benefits of that comfort level.

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