Lehtonen back at critical time for Stars

The groin injury Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen suffered Nov. 26 was overshadowed by, well, just about every other significant injury in the NHL this season. And there have been a few.

But let the record show that the Stars were tied for first place in the division when the injury struck Lehtonen just 5:31 into the Stars’ 3-0 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes. Few goalies had been playing more often than the 28-year-old Finn, who was 13-4-1 at the time.

When Lehtonen returned to the lineup last Thursday — one month and three days later — it was definitely a new day in the Pacific Division. The Stars needed a win but didn’t get it; their 4-1 loss to the visiting Columbus Blue Jackets left them in second place behind the surging San Jose Sharks.

“The first half we were all over them, but their goalie (Steve Mason) played good,” Lehtonen said after the game. “That was a big key for them. I had an OK game, but their goalie was just phenomenal.”

Lehtonen stopped 25 of 28 shots, while Mason stopped 36 of 37. It was an inauspicious return to be sure, but a successful one in the eyes of Stars coach Glen Gulutzan.

“Kari gave us exactly what we needed,” Gulutzan said. “I thought he looked like Kari. We just couldn’t reward him. I was encouraged by his first game, for sure.”

Lehtonen won his next outing Saturday night, an impressive 4-2 decision over the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. The goalie needed just 18 saves as the Stars outshot the B’s 27-20.

The win temporarily moved Dallas back into first place. By Monday, Los Angeles and San Jose were first and second, respectively. If the division lead remains a dogfight, expect the Stars to lean on Lehtonen heavily in the second half.

"Goaltending and special teams — that’s what wins games," Stars forward Steve Ott told the Dallas Morning News on Monday.

Unfortunately the Stars’ special teams haven’t been too special.

Their power-play and penalty-kill units both rank 22nd in the league. Dallas had 11 more power-play opportunities in December than November (while playing the same number of games) but converted only 8 of 49 chances — a pedestrian 16.3 percent success rate.

The fly in the ointment Saturday was that Boston got both its goals on the power play. The Stars, meanwhile, haven’t scored with the man advantage since their Dec. 26 game at St. Louis, a 5-3 loss.

Another setback: The always-tough Detroit Red Wings visit Tuesday and the Stars will play without Philip Larsen. The defenseman has "very, very, very, mild" concussion symptoms, according to Gulutzan, and defenseman Jordie Benn was recalled from AHL affiliate Texas.

After hosting Detroit, the Stars play four of the next six away from Dallas — a critical stretch during which consistent goaltending would be a welcome revelation.

Pacific Division notes:

The Kings have taken over first place in the division thanks to a 4-0-3 start under new coach Darryl Sutter. … A 2-1 shootout loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Monday was only the second time in 14 games that Los Angeles has lost when leading after two periods (12-0-2). … G Jonathan Quick was named the NHL’s third star of the week Monday. He is 5-0-2 in his last seven games with a 1.37 GAA and .951 save percentage. … Coyotes G Mike Smith skated on Sunday and Monday as he attempts to return from a groin injury, the Arizona Republic reported. … G Curtis McElhinney was summoned from AHL affiliate Portland to fill in Saturday in Minnesota – his first NHL start since April 9 as a member of the Ottawa Senators. McElhinney made 28 saves and the Coyotes won 4-2. … Phoenix’s Raffi Torres was suspended two games for his hit on Minnesota’s Nate Prosser. … The Sharks beat the Vancouver Canucks 3-2 in a shootout Monday in a rematch of last season’s Western Conference Final. Benn Ferriero and Patrick Marleau scored in regulation, and Michal Handzus scored the Sharks’ lone shootout goal. … RW Martin Havlat had surgery Dec. 21 to repair a partially torn hamstring.