Lehtonen continues to come up huge for Stars

The Dallas Stars continued their recent surge on Thursday night with a 4-3 shootout win over the San Jose Sharks, a team that had beaten them in the first three meetings of this season by a combined score of 14-5.

One big story in the win over the Sharks was the latest strong performance delivered by starting goaltender Kari Lehtonen, who stopped 45 of 48 shots against San Jose, and also denied all five Shark attempts in the shootout.

Stars head coach Glen Gulutzan singled out his Finnish-born netminder as one big reason why his club was able to come back from a pair of third-period deficits to tie the game twice, force overtime and eventually win in the shootout.

“Yeah, I thought we played real gutsy. We played hard. It’s not easy to come back off a road swing and getting that type of performance but Kari Lehtonen certainly gave us an opportunity to stay in this game long enough to get two points,” Gulutzan said.

His performance came after rookie backup Richard Bachman got the nod in Tuesday’s 5-2 win at Vancouver, a victory which gave the Stars a somewhat unexpected three-game sweep of their Western Canada road trip. Not only did that performance by Bachman help the Stars secure the full two points, but it also had some added benefits for Lehtonen heading in the Sharks game.

“It was good to get a lot of shots too, after getting three or four days rest,” Lehtonen said. “It seemed to be a perfect fit that Bachs played the Vancouver game and I was fresh, so that really helped.”

As good as the Stars’ No. 1 netminder was during regulation and in the extra frame, he might have been at his best in the shootout, when he kept the Sharks off the score sheet, even as it took five rounds to decide Thursday’s game. It was a nice bounce-back performance by the talented Finn after Dallas had lost in the shootout to the Penguins last Wednesday at American Airlines Center.

“Just trying to be a little more relaxed,” Lehtonen said after the Sharks game. “I was a little tense, trying to think too much what their guy is going to do. The last two, I was just trying to be patient, wait for their move and believe that I’m fast enough to move after they make the initial move. You just wish it would only go three rounds at that point, but we’ll take it and go from there.”

With Thursday’s win, the Stars now have a nine-game point streak, a stretch in which they are 8-0-1. Lehtonen has started seven of those games and it shouldn’t be a big surprise that his continued string of strong performances has been a big reason why Dallas has steadily climbed up the Western Conference standings and now sits atop the table in the Pacific Division.

During the last seven games, he is 6-0-1 with one shutout, a goals-against-average of 1.58 and a save percentage of .941, numbers which further reinforce what his first-year head coach has known for some time, that his starter is an elite-level goaltender in today’s NHL.

“There’s no question about it in our minds here. Going forward here, playoffs would be a big thing for him,” Gulutzan said. “To get us to the playoffs would solidify most people’s minds that yeah, he is. But certainly in our quarters and in our division, certainly most people think that. I can’t speak for them but I do here. We know he’s an elite goalie. Very fortunate to have him and very fortunate to get him.”

The current run by the Dallas Stars has definitely been a team effort. Not only has every member of the roster been chipping in on both ends of the ice, but the Dallas penalty kill has also been rock solid and the club has also been getting quality goaltending, whether it’s been from starter Lehtonen or rookie backup Bachman.

Last year, then-Stars head coach Marc Crawford rode Lehtonen like a pack mule down the stretch, starting him in 33 of Dallas’ final 34 games and by the end, it was clear the Finnish netminder was tired. That won’t be the case this year as Bachman is a more than capable backup who can step in to give Kari some much-needed rest when he needs it.

Thursday’s win over San Jose was a prime example of that. Lehtonen had last played four days ago, in a win at Calgary on Sunday and was well-rested for a key divisional battle with the Sharks, a team the Stars had yet to defeat this season before Thursday. The man known as Lehts was at his absolute best and once again was a big reason why the beat goes on for the Dallas Stars. Lehtonen figures to again be between the pipes on Saturday when the Anaheim Ducks visit the AAC as their march to the playoffs continues.