By Martin Iheke
Just when you thought the Dallas Stars may be finally turning the corner on the season, they fall right back down again. All season long, I have been harping on the four keys to the season which are backup goalie, power play, blue line and overtime. What I did not expect was the starting goaltending to become a major issue. Kari Lehtonen has been the Stars starting goalie for the last five seasons. If there has been one consistent element about this team since the start of the decade, it has been him. He has been counted upon to deliver big saves to keep this team in the hunt for the playoffs. At times, he has even been the best player.
Unfortunately, he has not been the same this season especially after his last two starts at home against the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning. Last Tuesday night against Colorado, the Stars were pretty much in control of the game with a 2-0 lead. They held them to only eight shots through two periods, but the Avs were able to battle back to tie the game late in regulation because of a bad goal given up by Lehtonen. The game would go to a shootout and twice the Stars were able to score with a chance for Lehtonen to save the day, but he could not come up with the big save. The Avs would go on to win via the shootout, 3-2. A very disappointing loss to a team the Stars are fighting with for a playoff spot.
After the game, Stars defenseman John Klingberg agreed that it was disappointing to blow the game. “Yeah, we had a 2-0 lead so it is disappointing we couldn’t keep the score,” he said. The Stars were solid the whole night. The problem was they could not get that performance from their starting goaltender and it continued in the next game against the Lightning last Thursday night. The first two shots he faced in the game went into the net. That cannot happen. The Stars were able to battle back to tie the score twice, but again Lehtonen could not come up with the big saves as the Lightning won, 5-3. After the game, Stars head coach Lindy Ruff was not pleased with Lehtonen’s performance. “Kari wasn’t good enough for us tonight,” he said. “If you’re going to beat a team like that playing that well and you battle back, he’s got to be better for us. That power play goal is a goal for me that he misread so it should’ve been a save.”
This season, his numbers have been very mediocre. He is 21-12-8 with a 2.96 GAA and a .904 save percentage before his start at the New York Rangers last Sunday afternoon according to dallasnews.com. Last season, he was 33-20-10 with a 2.41 GAA and a .919 save percentage according to the team’s website. Right now, he is in the third year of a 5-year $30 million contract he signed back in 2012. I do not know whether he is playing hurt or if he is struggling mentally. Either way, he has got to get back to playing like a $6 million a year player. The Stars desperately need him if they have any chance of making the playoffs.
After an embarrassing loss at the lowly Buffalo Sabres, 3-2 last Saturday night, the Stars were able to break their three-game losing streak at the New York Rangers in overtime, 3-2 the following day. Stars forward Ales Hemsky scored the game-winner, but the game should not have gone to overtime. The Stars were leading 2-1 with a little over a minute to go in regulation before Lehtonen gave up another bad goal while the Rangers were on the power play to tie it up. “It was a struggle, but it was fun to be out there,” Lehtonen said according to dallasnews.com. “It was nice to be back and be a difference maker. It was fun to be the guy again after a couple of games where the other goalie was better than me.” He did finish with 34 saves, but again, his inability to get big saves consistently should have every Stars fan concerned.
Bottom line: Lethonen has to be better because there are no other options for the Stars to turn to. If he cannot, then not only will the Stars miss the playoffs but they might have to look elsewhere for a starting goaltender in the offseason.
2/10 @Bruins 6:00 pm
2/13 vs Panthers 7:30 pm
2/14 @Avalanche 8:00 pm