FRISCO, Texas — Unfortunately, Kari Lehtonen knows all about the dreaded lower-body injury. The 29-year-old Dallas Stars goaltender missed 12 games in fall 2011 due to a groin injury and the talented Finn suffered a similar injury in a win at Winnipeg on Oct. 11, a game where after 35 minutes and he had stopped all 21 Jet shots he had faced, Lehtonen felt something was not right and had to leave the ice.
Lehtonen’s injury was again termed of the lower-body variety and with backup Dan Ellis filling in admirably for five of the six games he missed and Dallas’ top pick in the 2010 NHL Draft Jack Campbell subbing in for him in the other one, a 6-3 loss at Anaheim on Sunday night, Dallas’ top netminder is now ready to return, which he should do on Thursday when the Calgary Flames visit American Airlines Center as the Stars kick off a quick two-game homestand.
“Being a goalie is not painful anymore. I’m able to make saves,” Lehtonen said after practice on Tuesday, his first full session with the team since his injury. “Slowly every day we’ve been able to do more and more and we’re almost there.”
He was 2-1-0 with a 1.37 goals-against-average and a .953 save percentage at the time of his injury.
Stars’ first-year head coach Lindy Ruff has been in the NHL long enough to know what a big lift it can be for an entire team, not just the defensemen, once a No. 1 goaltender returns to the mix after an injury and he expects Lehtonen’s return to provide a similar effect.
“I think it’s going to be a big boost for us,” Ruff said. “He had a real good preseason, had gone good to that point and was pitching a shutout in Winnipeg, so I think any time you get your starter back, it’s a big part of your team.”
Should Lehtonen return to face the Flames on Thursday and all signs point to him doing so, then he will have missed exactly one-half the amount of games he missed two seasons ago when he was out from late November until late December.
However, even though this injury wasn’t nearly as severe in nature as that one and thus the recovery time was quicker, No. 32 admits he didn’t use any unorthodox methods to help speed along his recovery, news he delivered with his trademark understated sense of humor.
“It’s same thing [that] always happens, stretch out and something pops. It doesn’t feel good and now it’s recovered way quicker. That’s a good sign. Maybe it didn’t go as bad or being in better shape helps to recover faster,” Lehtonen said. “I don’t know-I didn’t take any horse pills or whatever. I didn’t call A-Rod’s clinic or anything like that, so that’s a good sign.”
Kari’s return to net couldn’t come at a better time. The Stars, who dropped two straight during a weekend trip to Los Angeles and Anaheim, now sit at 3-5-0 overall and considering the struggles Dallas has had at the blue line, seeing a stabilizing force like Lehtonen return to the crease can only help turn things around in the back as well. At least that’s how Stars defenseman Jordie Benn sees it.
“Well, it’s huge. It’s Kari. He’s an unbelievable goalie. He’s sick. That’s what it is, he’s sick,” Benn said. “He makes everything look easy out there, just makes it like a sixth man out there. [He] makes it easy for us when we go back to get the puck, so yeah we’re excited to have him back.”
Over the past few seasons or pretty much since the day he arrived in a trade with Atlanta back in Feb. 2010, having a healthy Kari Lehtonen has been vital to the Stars having a successful season. And even with the coaching change to Ruff, that hasn’t changed.
That’s because when healthy, Lehtonen, is a top-flight NHL netminder but as Stars fans know the issue has been him picking up a lower-body injury here and there during his tenure in Dallas. Hopefully he’s already gotten his one stint on the shelf out of the way early and the affable Finn will be healthy for the rest of the year.
“I hope so,” Lehtonen said when asked if he hopes this is his one injury for this season. “When you go out there, you have enough things to think about-the game and how to stop the puck. You can’t worry about other stuff. I’m sure the first 10 minutes will be guessing if you’re going to be OK, but you just play and that’s the way it’s going to be.”
Of course, that would bode well not only for the Stars’ chances to turn things around, but also for them to maybe even make the playoffs in year one of the Ruff era.