Penalty Minutes: Individual performances take center stage

Nashville forward Eric Nystrom scored a career-high four goals against Calgary on Friday.

Sergei Belski/Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

 

The Dallas Stars’ best years are ahead of them. They have plenty of talented young players but, as they continue to learn, defense is not their strong suit, even with a veteran coach like Lindy Ruff doing his best to improve the Stars in that aspect. At 31.3 per game, they rank 23rd in the NHL in shots allowed. With 525, they rank 27th in the league in giveaways.

How can a team that is so deficient defensively still have an outside shot at making the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

The answer is goalie Kari Lehtonen.

In winning three straight games last week, Lehtonen posted two shutouts and allowed a single goal in the other for a .985 save percentage and 0.33 goals-against average.

For a goalie who plays behind a team like that, it’s very difficult to rank among the league leaders in statistical categories like goals-against average and save percentage. So it’s telling that Lehtonen’s 20 wins are tied for ninth in the NHL and his three shutouts are tied for sixth.

He’s often asked to make up for his teammates’ mistakes and to help them steal a game or two, which he has done. Once a player who struggled to stay healthy with groin and back issues in Atlanta, the franchise that made him the second overall pick in the 2002 NHL Draft, Lehtonen has matured and found his game and some stability in Dallas. In parts of five seasons with the Stars, he has played in 220 games and won 107 of them while never being on a playoff team in Texas.

He has shown he can be a workhorse and stay healthy and is on pace to play 68 games. He played 69 in 2010-11, the first of two back-to-back seasons in which he posted at least 30 wins with the Stars. Dating to Dec. 19, Lehtonen has played in 19 of 20 games, twice starting on back-to-back nights.

When Penalty Minutes caught up with Lehtonen 10 days ago, he was lamenting the ups and downs of the NHL season. The Stars were in the middle of a nose dive, a 1-8-1 streak to start the New Year. However, he helped to pull his team out of it the next day. After a 4-1 loss at Nashville on Jan. 20, the Stars flew home and Lehtonen shut out Minnesota, the team they are chasing for the West’s final playoff spot, 4-0.

All of this raises interesting questions for Finland’s Olympic team. With Lehtonen, Boston’s Tuukka Rask and San Jose’s Antti Niemi, the Finns might have the strongest goaltending of any country.

Rask, who plays for a much better and more defensively-responsible team, hit a rough three-week stretch from Dec. 31 to Jan. 19 when he went 2-4-1. Since, he has won two straight, allowing only three goals, and he has the experience of taking his team to the Stanley Cup Final last season. Niemi’s 27 wins rank second in the league, but he had his own rough patch, too. He went 2-3 over six games, allowing 14 goals on 56 shots. Since, he has rebounded to win four straight. On his resume, he brings the experience of winning a Cup with Chicago in ’10.

Asked about the Olympics — which will be his first appearance for his country in the Games — Lehtonen mainly shrugged his shoulders and said he had not thought about it yet. Once the break arrived, he said, he would turn his thoughts to that.

Anointed a star in his homeland before he was even drafted in the NHL, Lehtonen has never won a Stanley Cup playoff game, although he brought the Chicago Wolves to Game 7 of the American Hockey League’s 2005 Calder Cup Final, where he lost to a fellow Finn (Antero Niittymaki, Finland’s 2006 Olympic hero, of the Philadelphia Phantoms). It will be an interesting call for former NHL great Jari Kurri, Finland’s general manager, Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen, Finland’s assistant GM, and company to decide who will man the net in Sochi for Team Finland.

But Lehonten is giving them something to consider.

In the logjam that is the Metropolitan Division, the Philadelphia Flyers are nip-and-tuck in terms of staying in playoff position. At present, the Flyers sit seventh in the East, mainly by virtue of having played one game more than Columbus and Washington, a win by both of which would drop the Flyers out of playoff position.

It leads one to wonder: Was a 5-0 win over the injury-riddle Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday that snapped a four-game winless streak a sign of new things to come or simply business as usual?

It’s hard to tell with this bunch, which has been hot-and-cold all season long. The Flyers have not won back-to-back games in three weeks, as they have struggled to keep the puck out of their net.

In the nine games entering Tuesday, the Flyers had allowed 37 goals, an average of 4.1 per game. That will not win you many games nor will it get you in the playoffs. Even in the two games that the Flyers won during that streak, they allowed at least three goals. The 33-save shutout by Steve Mason on Tuesday represented the first time the Flyers had held an opponent to fewer than three goals since a 3-1 win against Montreal on Jan. 8.

Again, many of this team’s issues have to do with the composition of its defense, which never has come close to replacing the injured Chris Pronger (out since the 2011-12 season with career-threatening, concussion-related symptoms) or Matt Carle, who departed to Tampa Bay via free agency in the summer of 2012.

Braydon Coburn remains the team’s only true top-pair defenseman. Kimmo Timonen, 38, most likely in his final NHL season, and Mark Streit, 36, are two older, more offensive-minded defensemen. Nicklas Grossman is minus-11 and Luke Schenn, who needs to develop more, is minus-5 in a third-pair role. Erik Gusafsson is one of three Flyers defenseman who is on the positive side, but he has only played two games after missing more than a month with injury.

Then there is the enigmatic Andrej Meszaros, one of those three Flyers defensemen on the plus side. Meszaros has been a healthy scratch the past two games after totaling 10 points in nine games immediately before sitting out. (He was a minus in each of his final two games and had his ice time cut in each.) Named to Slovakia’s Olympic team, Meszaros is a player loaded with talent.

"Mez’s defensive play has fallen and I didn’t like his game in Columbus, so I went with (Erik Gustafsson)," Flyers coach Craig Berube told Philadelphia reporters of the move. "It’s just what I did."

Meszaros has been a healthy scratch for long stretches this season and would seemingly be a candidate to be traded. That won’t be easy for a player who is earning $5.5 million this season — even if he’s in the final year of his deal.

Maybe Tuesday’s win wakes the Flyers up. Or maybe it’s just part of a continual muddle.

These two franchises have shared much of the same DNA over the past few seasons and don’t meet very often (especially with East and West not playing each other last season). Former Kings assistant general manager Ron Hextall has returned to Philadelphia, where he starred as a goalie, as assistant general manager and director of hockey operations.

Two former Flyers star forwards, Jeff Carter and former Flyers captain Mike Richards, helped the Kings to win the Stanley Cup in 2012. Richards played for the Flyers as recently as 2010-11 and the players the Flyers received, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn, still play for the Flyers. Carter, traded first by Philadelphia to Columbus then later from Columbus to Los Angeles, was named to Canada’s Olympic team. If one had to judge by recent history, the Kings got the better of that deal. They are fairly secure in third place in the highly competitive Pacific Division while only one point keeps the Flyers in playoff position in the Eastern Conference. Their current West Coast road trip should be daunting for the Flyers, who need to keep pace with points in a game like this.

In a 5-4 shootout loss to Calgary on Friday, the gritty veteran wing scored a career-high four goals in 16:13 of time on ice. He also went plus-3, had seven shots, two hits, three giveaways, a takeaway and a blocked shot. Nystrom has only 11 goals on the season and 57 in his career in 460 games, so he scored 7 percent of his career total on that one night. It also marked the first time in the 15-year history of the Nashville franchise that a player scored four goals.

Alas, the memory will not prove so happy for Nystrom, as the Predators blew a two-goal lead in the third period and lost in the shootout.

In the 16 years since NHL players began participating in the Olympics, the tournament has represented a double-edged sword to the NHL.

Players love the honor of participating in them and television viewers — at least when the tournament is held in North America — flock to hockey to see the game at its best.

But there also is the down side. In 2006, goalie Dominik Hasek injured himself in the Olympics playing for Czech Republic and was unable to play the rest of the NHL season for Ottawa. The Senators finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference that season but lost in five games to Buffalo in the second round. That same year, Peter Bondra, late in his career, suffered a sports hernia and put off surgery because the rehab would have put him out of the Turin Olympics. He was a national hero for Slovakia and scored four goals in six Olympic contests, but only six for his NHL team, the Atlanta Thrashers, after returning in the final 24 games that season as the Thrashers narrowly missed the postseason.

For this very reason, owners and management are wary of their players’ participation in the Olympics. They pay the players’ salaries but if players get injured in the Olympics, the NHL clubs have to go without. That is why the league has yet to commit to the next Olympics in 2018 and why it was slow to allow NHL players to compete in Sochi (threats from players like Alex Ovechkin that he would compete even if the league did not cease its operations during the tournament might have played a role).

But one interesting outcome of the roster announcements earlier this month is how they have spurred the play of some of the players who did not make their respective national teams. Call them snubs or omissions — whatever you want — but elite players, especially those who have starred for their national teams in the past, are proud and some have upped their games since.

Take Carolina center Eric Staal, a linemate of Sidney Crosby’s in helping Canada to win gold in Vancouver in 2010. Since the Jan. 7 announcement of Canada’s team, Staal, who was omitted, had four goals and five assists in eight games, including a six-game point streak.

"The last few weeks here he’s really elevated his game, making plays," Carolina coach Kirk Muller said following Monday’s 3-2 win over Columbus. "… The big boys came up with big goals and made a difference."

Another glaring example is Tampa Bay Lightning wing Martin St. Louis, whose general manager Steve Yzerman, picked Canada’s team. The 38-year-old St. Louis went on a 10-game points streak (eight goals, six assists). His 52 points rank 13th in the NHL. A conspiracy theorist might say that Yzerman left off St. Louis purposely to help the Lightning, who continues to play without one of the game’s elite goal-scorers in Steven Stamkos (broken leg).

"I don’t think it’s motivation, to be honest," St. Louis was quoted as saying on the website of Canadian cable broadcaster SportsNet. "I feel like I’ve played some good hockey this year but I’ve had some good bounces. But I’m motivated Game 1, Game 10, you know? To play in this league and be successful, you have to be motivated. I’ve been like that my whole career, I don’t think these last 10 games I have been more motivated."

Another 30-something, Dallas defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who has represented his country four times at the Olympics and twice at the World Cup, also felt slighted when he was not selected. Gonchar, 39, has six of his 16 points on the season in 11 games since Russia’s team was announced. In those 11 games, he has been a minus only twice and is a plus-1 overall. In 47 games on the season, he stands at minus-6.

One last notable is Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson, over whose selection the USA Hockey committee engaged in considerable hand-wringing, according to reports by writers embedded with the committee. Johnson has three goals and 16 assists this season and is minus-8 in 53 games.

"When I needed the belief and trust, I didn’t get it and I didn’t get it when it counted from numerous people," Johnson told the Columbus Dispatch following the decision.

However, in the 13 games since USA Hockey’s New Year’s Day announcement, Johnson has one goal and seven assists and has only had three games in which he was a minus. In those 13 games he is plus-2, as the Blue Jackets have gotten hot.

Of course, players also can go the other way once the announcements come out. The player whose omission from the U.S. team caused the most debate because of comments in those embedded reports made by Calgary President Brian Burke — Ottawa wing Bobby Ryan — has tailed off considerably. Ryan has one goal in 11 games since the announcement. Dallas rookie wing Valeri Nichushkin was sat down for two games after expressing to his coach Lindy Ruff that he was exhausted after making a big push to successfully earn a spot on the Russian team.

All of it illustrates not only the pride of NHL players but, to an extent, the price for some teams of the NHL’s participation in the Olympics, which is why it is not a given that it will continue in the future.