Tonight, emotions will be running on high as the early MVP of the Dallas Stars returns after missing the previous dozen games. The last time we saw Stars goal tender, Kari Lehtonen, he was writhing in pain on the ice in Phoenix as he suffered a low-groin strain. Much like an ankle sprain to a running back in football, the lower the better, however, for a goalie who probably skates the equivalent of three ice rinks in a lateral movement, any groin injury can put even the toughest net minder on the top shelf with their water bottle for several weeks.
Lehtonen perhaps couldn’t have had a better opponent to face in his return as the worst team in the league comes into the AAC. The Columbus Blue Jackets bring their league worst 23 points in to face one of the hottest goalies prior to his injury in Lehtonen. The two teams have faced each other twice already, having a home-and-home series back in October, with Dallas taking both contests. Perhaps the most glaring for the Blue Jackets is the fact they have not won a road tilt in regulation all season, having been victorious just three times by way of two shootouts and an overtime victory. Going against Columbus, on top of the return of their number one backstop (who posts the lowest GAA against the Jackets versus any other team in the league), is the fact the Stars are one of the hottest teams at home, posting eleven wins against just five losses.
The Stars will look to right the penalty kill that has seen opponents score at least two power play goals in four straight games. “We’ve been giving up far too many goals on the penalty kill lately,” said left wing Eric Nystrom. “We’ve been winning, so it hasn’t really been that glaring,” he added. Tonight would be the night for the killers to turn it around, as the Blue Jackets are near the bottom in power plays at a putrid 15%. On the flip side, the Stars, who are slightly below Columbus’ PP percentage at 14.7% could also see a turn around as CBJ is also near the bottom in penalty killing. Along with the month Mike Ribeiro has been having with twelve points in the eleven games played, the guys who should be scoring like Jamie Benn, Michael Ryder and Brenden Morrow are starting to find the back of the net.
On paper, this should be a gimme, however, watch out for a Stars team that could be looking ahead to a New Years Eve game against the defending Stanley Cup champion, Boston Bruins, who, in my opinion, sent the Stars on a downward spiral last year with the “Boston Beatdown” where there were four fights within the first SIX seconds of the game and saw extended injury time to Adam Burish and Krys Barch (now with the Florida Panthers), which potentially put a greater amount of pressure on then Star, Brad Richards. If the Stars can use tonight’s game against the Blue Jackets as an opportunity to fine tune details against a far inferior team, then 2011 could end on a very sweet note.