We here in the hockey world love to make a big deal about players returning to the ice against their old team. Whether it’s Modano coming back to Dallas in the home opener this season or goaltender Kari Lehtonen playing against his previous team the Atlanta Thrashers.
Atlanta is currently hovering on the brink in the 8th spot of the Eastern Conference, but even there they are one of the big surprises of the year – perhaps one of the only surprises bigger than our very own Dallas Stars. They are coming off of a loss to the powerhouse Flyers who currently sit sturdily atop the Eastern Conference. Like any team who has been brought down to Earth by a score of 5-2, the Thrashers are looking to get back in the win column in a bad way. The question is can the Hawk stimulus pack of Ladd and Big Buff top the Pacific Division leading Stars who are rested after 3-days off and want to extend their streak to 3 in a row. The crowd could certainly use the reassurance after a 3-2 win that nearly didn’t come to pass last time they were in the AAC struggling to pull out a win against the lowly Oilers.
But despite the heroics of the two teams this season after a history of struggling; the big story coming into this game will be Lehtonen leading his new team to the ice in his new city with the wind of his new fans propelling him against his old team.
“I didn’t want to leave at first,” Lehtonen said, “But after a while I realized it was the best thing for me, coming here.”
And Kari has done nothing but “arrive” since he got here last season at the deadline. Lehtonen has done nothing short of work miracles in the pipes on some nights, winning games the Stars had no business getting 2 points in at times, others just giving them the solid performance and the confidence they hadn’t had in the last 2 seasons. I think nearly every fan who watched a majority of the games was ready to see Turco depart, but who was this guy with injury problems replacing him? As it turns out, he’s the phenom that was taken 2nd over all in the 2002 draft after all. Go figure.
A struggling Thrashers team unloaded Lehtonen in the wake of a whole-sale blowout as well as his medical problems, no doubt. And since then they have thrived with the help of transplants from the Blackhawk championship team of last year and the unloading of Kovalchuk and his theoretical contract to the Devils. Meanwhile Lehtonen has helped drag the Stars back out of the gutter in the West as well proving that sometimes a change of scenery is the only remedy.
Joe Nieuwendyk: “He’s made himself a better player and I really think he’s enjoyed the support we’ve given him.”
I think after years of losing and under-performing it was a nice change for Lehts to get some uninhibited support from a team again, without worries that there were any underlying disappointments.
“It’s going to be special. I still have to go back there (Atlanta), but it is going to be exciting,” said Lehtonen. “It’s an important game too. I have to do the same things I always do, stop pucks and keep them out of the net.”
And that’s what he will have to do tonight when the Thrashers roll into town with a loss on their shoulder and a ton of character and grit to go around. The big question is going to be whether the 3-days off will hurt the Stars in the short term even if it helps in the long-run with all of the practice they got in. They could find themselves on stale-legs and fall flat against a fresh and zealous team. Whether we like it or not, Atlanta is going to come hard and with a back-end to rival back-ends the Stars will have to be on their toes in order to allow Lethonen to see the pucks coming from the point as his old-team rolls into Dallas. What’s at stake? Well I’m sure the Thrashers want to put some space between them and the Hurricanes who sit 2-points out of knocking Atlanta below the play-off threshold and taking the 8th and final play-off seed for their own. As for Dallas, well the Coyotes are on a tear and with them in the midst of a 3-game win streak, the Stars could lose division lead with one untimely stumble despite a 4-point cushion.
So here’s to a great game with some built-in theatrics, I know we all look forward to hearing Ralph and Razor’s take on the game tonight at 7:00pm!