Dallas Stars: Kari Lehtonen Providing Valuable Insurance In Crease

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 22: Kari Lehtonen
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 22: Kari Lehtonen /

The Dallas Stars broke out of an unfamiliar losing skid last night with a win against the Los Angeles Kings. While a late spark helped them seal the deal, they received a massive boost from the play of Kari Lehtonen. That’s starting to become a common occurrence, which is great.

The airbag is a pretty perplexing concept when you think about it.

When someone buys a new car, the last thing they probably think about is the airbag. That’s because every new car comes with standard airbags nowadays. Sure, some cars come with more airbags than others that are placed in different areas of the car, but the point is that every car has them.

And for most cars, they will never be used. While there are a good number of auto accidents every year, the number of registered cars on the roads greatly outnumber them. So the airbag is forgotten about much of the time and brushed to the side as an unnecessary addition for many drivers.

Yet, they are still one of the most important features of a car. That’s because if anything ever goes wrong, they are prepared to save the day. If everything goes wrong all of a sudden, you can count on the airbags being ready to bear the load. So even though they are used rarely, their presence is invaluable when things go wrong.

Dallas Stars
Dallas Stars /

Dallas Stars

Kari Lehtonen has been an airbag for the Dallas Stars this season.

When the Stars traded for and signed goaltender Ben Bishop to a long-term deal in May 2017, it was clear that an era in the Dallas crease had come to an end. After seven seasons as a starter for the Stars, Kari Lehtonen became the Stars’ new backup. Though Lehtonen had been a stable starter for the majority of his career with Dallas, it was clear that a new spark was necessary in order for the team to take the next step.

And so Lehtonen shifted to the no. 2 role. As the season started, it was unclear as to whether the system would work. Would Lehtonen be able to perform at a consistent rate even though his playing time would take a significant hit? Was a two-veteran system destined to fail? And how often would Lehtonen actually be used?

Through the first two months of the season, there were definitely some kinks. But those kinks translated across the entire team. The Dallas Stars were adapting to a significantly different coaching style led by Ken Hitchcock, and a great culture shock was getting underway. Once the team caught on, however, things began trending in the right direction.

The offense started scoring on a consistent basis using depth and the defense became a top-five unit in the league. In addition, the Stars’ goaltending started clicking with an effective one-two punch.

And now here we are in late February. Dallas sits with a record of 35-22-4 with 74 points. They sit in the first wild card spot in the Western Conference and are making a significant push to the playoffs.

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  • As crazy as it may seem, Kari Lehtonen has been one of the most important players in making this playoff push possible. Why is that?

    Well, because he’s been there whenever the team needs him. Whether it’s a predestined thing or a call at the drop of a hat, Lehtonen has taken the challenge head-on. As a result, he’s buying Dallas chances to win and get ahead in the playoff race.

    This season has been a bit of an on-and-off approach for Lehtonen. His playing time in the early going was very unpredictable and scattered. After basically dropping the game against Vegas on opening night after coming in as relief and following it up with a loss to the Blues two days later, Lehtonen hit a long stretch of inactivity.

    He only started in four games between Oct. 8 and Dec. 2 along with one relief effort. But while he posted a 2-1-1 record, his numbers in net were undeniably solid. And that was only the beginning.

    Lehtonen hit a bit of a hot streak in December, going 2-2-0 in a four-game span that included a .918 save percentage and two big wins over the Rangers and Islanders. But immediately following this span, Lehtonen sat for a month due to Bishop’s hot streak from late December to early January.

    No. 32 ended up sitting for a full month with no action. His first start of 2018 came on Jan. 15 against the Boston Bruins, who were the hottest team in the league at the time. Lehtonen showed no signs of rust, stopping 30 of 32 and leading the Stars to a big overtime win.

    Since then, the Big Finn has been nothing short of brilliant. Lehtonen has won each of his past six starts and has not posted a save percentage below .905 since Dec. 15 at New Jersey. He’s also appeared in two relief efforts over the past two weeks against Vancouver and San Jose. Throughout this stretch, Lehtonen owns a .947 save percentage and has given up 11 goals.

    This all translates out to an 11-5-1 record for Lehtonen on the season along with a .923 save percentage and 2.14 goals against average. Those are the best numbers of his career (excluding his rookie season, when he only played in four games).

    But the numbers aren’t even the most impressive part of his game this year. Instead, it’s the fact that he’s standing on his head for the Dallas Stars in any situation that they put him in.

    If Bishop is faltering in the early portion of a game, Lehtonen is there to step in and keep Dallas in the game. If the Stars need to give Bishop a break and put Lehtonen up against a tough opponent after an extended rest period, he’s quick to hop into the crease and put on a strong performance. And as we saw on Thursday night in LA, if Dallas is in the midst of a losing skid and needs a spark, he’s their guy.

    Lehtonen posted his first shutout of the season against the Kings on Thursday, turning aside all 18 shots faced. The performance is simply another chapter in the storybook season that Lehtonen is piecing together in his new role.

    This season, he’s beaten teams like Boston, Minnesota, and Pittsburgh after extended rest. He’s lifted the Stars out of slumps like he did against New York in December and against LA the other night.

    All in all, Lehtonen has been an ideal airbag for the Dallas Stars this year. The Stars don’t use him on a regular basis, but when they need him to show up, he does. He’s always prepared to step in and soften the blow or take over entirely if a crash occurs.

    That’s hard to find in backup goalies, especially in ones that are veterans and former starters.

    Kari Lehtonen is providing a significant boost to the Dallas Stars in the playoff push and gives the team options as they enter the final stretch.

    Next: Five Players The Stars May Target At The Trade Deadline

    An airbag is not a major selling point when someone purchases a car. But boy are they happy when it shows up when they need it most.

    The Dallas Stars sure are lucky to have the Big Finn as their airbag.