The Dallas Stars have received a lot of criticism for their goaltending tandem. But so far this season, it’s becoming pretty clear that the tandem is not to blame.
Being a goaltender in the NHL definitely has its negatives.
In a typical game, they have to tote around a lot of extra padding, they’re secluded from the action for about half of the game, they have a piece of frozen rubber pelt them between 25-30 times a game, and to top it all of when their team loses, they typically take the bulk of the blame. Not to mention that they have to stand in that uncomfortable position for the majority of the game.
Article continues below ...
It can’t be an easy job nor is it for the faint of heart. Goalies must have a thick outer shell (for more reasons than one) and endure a lot both on and off the ice.
Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi know this all too well. The Dallas Stars goaltending duo is currently in the middle of its second year of service, and the overall perception of the tandem is no different than it was at the end of the 2015-16 playoff run: not good enough.
The Dallas Stars as a team have received a lot of criticism over the past year for their support of the tandem. In June 2015, the Stars made trade news when they sent a seventh-round pick to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for then 31-year-old starting goalie Antti Niemi.
This was an interesting move to say the least for the Stars, who had spent the past five seasons bouncing from backup to backup without finding any long-term success. GM Jim Nill decided to go in a new direction and test out a new theory: two starting goalies sharing time in net.
Through last year, it went alright. Though neither goalie carried a save percentage above .910 or a goals against average below 2.65, both backstopped the Stars to 25 wins a piece and helped Dallas solidify themselves as the best team in the Western Conference.
So, with all of the regular season success, everyone was A-OK with and fully supportive of the tandem. Then the postseason rolled around, and things slowly went downhill. After a respectable six-game series victory over the Minnesota Wild, the Stars fell just short in the Western semis in a seven-game set against the St. Louis Blues.
Amongst a lack of offense, inconsistency on defense, and disappointing special teams was the average play of both goalies. Guess what everyone focused their anger and resentment on? Hint: it wasn’t the offense, defense, or special teams.
Coming into 2016-17, many expected the Stars to abandon the “failed” trial with the Lehtonen-Niemi duo. The name of Ben Bishop was linked to Dallas multiple times throughout the offseason, especially during the draft when the big-time trades were going down. If Jim Nill truly was going to shake things up again, Bishop was an excellent place to start.
Instead, Nill backed away from all the rumors and brought the Stars with him when he confirmed that Lehtonen and Niemi would remain the starters for Dallas, at least for the beginning of the season. Of course everyone was up in arms against it.
And so far this season, it has been more of the same. When the Dallas Stars slip up, it’s all because of the goalies. Forget the fact that they faced 30+ shots and had little offensive or defensive support throughout the night. Also forget that the Stars are just now recovering from one of the worst injury plagues that the franchise has ever witnessed. Just aim all of your anger at the crease.
It seems as though it’s human nature to always blame the goalie when things go awry. After all, he is the last line of defense and if he doesn’t stop the shot, there’s no hope. The goalie has a lot bearing down on his shoulders.
The thing is, the Dallas Stars’ goaltending tandem could not be further from the blame this year.
Now you’re probably saying, “But Niemi’s save percentage is .898 and so is Lehtonen’s! Even an average goaltender’s save percentage is above .900 so the blame is definitely on them. Let’s burn them at the stake and start fresh.” Well, maybe not that last part.
But their play is keeping the Stars in games on most nights. Dallas currently owns a record of 7-6-5. Of those seven victories, a Stars goalie can be thanked for at least six of them. Even with the five games that went to overtime, at least two of them would not even have made it to extra time had it not been for the heroics of a Dallas goaltender.
Sure neither goalie is above .900 and sure each one of their goals against averages is above 3.00 (which is primarily due to their performances in the 8-2 loss to Winnipeg). But statistics don’t tell the entire story and never do. It has to be difficult being a goaltender backstopping for a team that is ailing on offense and struggling to find consistency with a young and relatively new defensive group.
Over the past week, the Stars goaltenders have proven that they are prepared to take the next step if the rest of the team is as well. They have played some tough opponents and stood tall the whole way.
Niemi has only started in one game since last Thursday, being on Tuesday against the Devils. Although Dallas lost in overtime, Niemi saved 31-33 and was not to blame for the game-winning goal. He earned first star honors that night as well.
Lehtonen has been the Stars’ workhorse over the past week. He is 3-1-0 since last Thursday, posting a .916 save percentage and 2.75 GAA. His play last Friday night was unbelievable against the Oilers (who put 42 shots on net), and he matched it with just as amazing a showing last night against the Colorado Avalanche. He earned first star honors in each of those performances.
The thing is, the Dallas Stars are leaning particularly heavy on their net-minders this year. The Stars are currently 10th in the league for most shots allowed per game at an average of 31.6. Last season, the Stars finished 21st in the same category with 28.9 shots allowed per game. The goalies are having to put in more work and coming up in a bigger way.
Sure this goaltending tandem isn’t perfect. Sure the Stars have $10.4 million sunk into the two of them (which is more than any other NHL team has in their own respective goalie tandem). And sure they are both aging quickly. But that doesn’t mean they can’t still produce. This past week has helped prove that.
This year, Lehtonen and Niemi are not only helping carry the load, but taking on the bulk of it. They’ve had a year to adapt to this new system. They’ve soaked in the criticism and used it. It looks like they are ready to go this year and are in it for the long haul. At least that’s what their performance is saying at the moment. Let’s hope it keeps up.
So have a little faith, Stars fans. Or was that show-stopping glove save last night not enough for you? Lehtonen and Niemi are still capable of taking this team a long way. Why not hop on their backs with the rest of the team and enjoy the ride? Maybe it will take you somewhere you like.