The recent play of Dallas Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen is a heartwarming tale of selflessness and trust. Let’s give the veteran a hand.
First off, Imagine working at your job, whatever you do for a living. Just envision it – you’re killing it at all turns surrounded by lesser employees, giving it 100% every single day trying to turn something around. Then, as soon as things look better, you’re ousted.
Your place of work hires someone to fill your position. They have no experience within the organization and have been hired only on reputation, not hard work. Would you stick around, accepting a diminished role with the group and knowing your ceiling just isn’t high enough? No, that would be embarrassing and agonizing.
You’re not Kari Lehtonen, and Kari Lehtonen isn’t you.
I lead into this piece with that intro describing nobody else but Lehtonen. It was the former first-round National Hockey League Entry Draft pick that carried the Dallas Stars on his shoulders for the better part of eight seasons – qualifying for the postseason just twice despite being perhaps the only reason to watch the bankruptcy-era Stars club – who kept going.
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On Monday, Dec. 11, and the following Wednesday, Kari Lehtonen of old showed up in New York City, first taking down the New York Rangers in a 2-1 shootout thriller on Monday. Lehtonen made 25 saves on 26 shots and watched Jason Spezza lift a backhander over Ondrej Pavelec as the Stars walked out with a dominant victory.
Secondly, it was a blissful all-around performance in Brooklyn against the New York Islanders that set massive milestones for the long-time Stars netminder. Head coach Ken Hitchcock rode his hot hand and Lehtonen showed no signs of slowing, stopping 32 of 34 shots in a 5-2 win.
Lehtonen won his 300th career NHL game with the Stars and Atlanta Thrashers (Winnipeg Jets), becoming the 33rd NHLer to accomplish the feat and he sixth active goaltender. He also wore a badge of Finland pride, starting in his 624th match, a record in for Finnish-born goalies
“It was fun and nice to get (the 300th win) on my first try,” Lehtonen told Gershon Rabinowitz of NY Sports Day. “It was obviously in the back on my head and it was a nice feeling. We started off really well and had good chances. It was nice to play the last couple of games and get good results. It makes me believe in my play and what I’m doing.”
The Dallas Stars made the move to acquire former Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop in the summer and slot Lehtonen into the backup role, something the Big Finn had never before seen. He was the clear number-two goaltender – not a goalie tandem member, not an NHL starter. That hasn’t stopped him.
He has mellowed into the role of the backup goaltender on a potential Stanley Cup Final contender, and taken everything in stride. Lehtonen is a total team-first guy, and these records and milestones could not have happened to anyone better. It’s on us, Dallas Stars fans, to make him feel the fortune and gratitude he has earned after sticking with us for so long.
The Stars do not return to American Airlines Center until the 19th of December, where they face the reigning President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. There’s no way of telling if Kari Lehtonen will be between the pipes for that one, as the club must first finish the last half of their northeast U.S. road trip; they take on the New Jersey Devils on Friday and the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday.
However… when Lehtonen makes a home start for the first time back, I want to hear the signature “KA-RI, KA-RI, KA-RI” chants that serenaded the veteran netminder. If you think anyone deserves that more than Kari, the longest-tenured current Stars player whose name isn’t Jamie Benn, you’re either wrong or stupid.
If this is Kari’s final season with the Stars, let’s send him out happy. Lehtonen surely gave us emotional ups and downs over the season, but not once could you say he stopped trying. Unless you’re referring to the Stars vs Calgary Flames game in 2013, during which Lehtonen took a seat atop his own net, but you’re missing the point. Gosh.
It’s been a very long time since we’ve watched a Kari Lehtonen-less Dallas Stars team, and the five-year postseason drought the former Vezina vote-getter was a part of makes it feel even longer. He deserves our appreciation, and I want us fans to make sure he knows he’s loved in Dallas.