Dallas Stars Should Roll With Kari Lehtonen Until He Falters

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 03: Goaltender Kari Lehtonen
DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 03: Goaltender Kari Lehtonen /

The Dallas Stars are starting to catch fire, and Kari Lehtonen is a big reason behind their success. It’s time to give the backup an extended stay in the crease, at least until he falters.

When the Dallas Stars opened up their 2017-18 regular season slate against the Vegas Golden Knights, the hype for Stars hockey was electric.

The Stars spent the offseason revamping their roster and rounding out the rough edges in hopes of becoming contenders yet again. After a rough 2016-17 campaign, Dallas was expected to claw back in a big way.

In addition to that, the Stars’ were expected to have a pretty easy opening game. Vegas, the newest NHL franchise, had just stacked its roster but did not look entirely promising. As it is with every new NHL team, there is always an adaptation period to the league and its competition. And though we now know that Vegas has completely bypassed that period, it was a different story on opening night.

The first game offered the Dallas Stars an excellent opportunity to start the season off on the right foot against a newly-formed Vegas team. And for the Stars, they played like a revamped team that wanted to make a statement. Yet, somehow they still lost.

Dallas Stars
Dallas Stars /

Dallas Stars

Dallas outshot the Golden Knights 46-30 throughout the game but dropped a 2-1 decision. Behind a stellar performance from Marc-Andre Fleury for Vegas, there was another factor that contributed to the Stars’ collapse: an injury to Ben Bishop.

After starting his career in Dallas off with a stellar 19-19 effort through 43:58 of play against the Knights, Bishop exited the game with an eye injury. Kari Lehtonen replaced him for the final period, and that’s where it all hit the fan.

Lehtonen gave up two goals on 11 shots and squandered the Stars’ 1-0 lead. Dallas fought to get back into the game, but could not make up for Lehtonen’s subpar debut as the Stars backup. The Stars began the year at a 0-1-0 record, and the preseason hype took a significant hit.

Since that game, however, the Dallas Stars have put together quite an interesting journey. There have been ups, downs, and in-betweens, and now Dallas sits at an 18-13-1 mark. But things are starting to look up as of late, as the Stars have strung together a five-game and two-game win streak over the past three weeks.

As the team begins to heat up, the hype is starting to return. And over the past few games, there’s one primary reason for the Dallas Stars success. But it’s not new starting goaltender Ben Bishop. Instead, it’s the very goaltender that struggled to keep his composure in game one.

Kari Lehtonen has played incredibly well in his past few starts for the Stars. After being demoted to backup over the offseason, some wondered whether he would be able to adjust properly. He had been the Stars’ go-to goaltender for nearly a decade, and switching to a backup role might not be an easy transition.

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  • And while it was nice to see Ben Bishop playing well in the early going of the season, Lehtonen played at an up-and-down tempo. That has not been the case for the past few games.

    Lehtonen has won three of his past four starts, but has shown excellent poise and composure and put up great numbers in each game.

    He posted a .926 save percentage against Colorado two weeks back that helped the Stars win their fifth straight game; he also played clean up duty for Bishop against Nashville and tried to salvage the mess. His only loss in his last five games played was against St. Louis, a game in which the Stars had no offensive production and leaned heavily on Lehtonen. Even with this working against him, Lehtonen posted a .923 save percentage.

    But his most impressive play has come in the past two games. The Stars headed north this week for a four-game road trip, and Ken Hitchcock decided to roll with Lehtonen to start it off against the Rangers.

    Lehtonen responded in a big way, posting a .960 save percentage and only allowing one goal in the game. He also went 2/3 in the shootout and gave the Stars’ shooters a chance to win.

    It was an impressive start and gave Hitchcock a good reason to start his backup yet again on Wednesday night against the Islanders.

    Lehtonen answered the bell yet again, posting a .941 save percentage and claiming his 300th career NHL win.

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    It has been a big week for the Big Finn, and the Dallas Stars would be smart to see what else he has up his sleeve.

    The Stars have two more games on this road trip against two good Eastern Conference squads. They will play New Jersey on Friday night and follow it up with a game against the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday. Hitchcock would be smart to keep rolling with Lehtonen as the starter.

    No. 32 is showing increased confidence with each passing game, is coming up with big saves when the team needs them, and is giving the group a chance to win. He shows poise and focus in net and looks downright impressive as a starter.

    Ben Bishop is still a capable starter, but has hit a rough patch lately. These last few days off have hopefully given him a chance to refocus and realign his play. But while he is amping back up, Lehtonen is showing off his hot hand.

    These next two games could potentially push Dallas into the top three in the Central if they can come away with four points. A sweep of the road trip would give the Stars a big boost in morale and in the standings, but it will also give a large bump up in confidence for Lehtonen.

    Next: Race Tightening Around The Stars In The Standings

    The Dallas Stars are winning with the hot hand, and it would be smart for them to keep him rolling, at least as long as he plays up to speed.

    The real question is how long Kari Lehtonen can keep it up.