Dallas Stars Goalie Kari Lehtonen, who recently missed 12 games with a lower body injury, has gone 2-2 since returning to the nets in late December. Lehtonen is 15-6-1 with a 2.42 GAA and a .921 save percentage this season for the Stars. And while 22-year-old center Jamie Benn is sparking the offense with nine points in his last four games, what this team needs to get to the postseason is solid play at the blue line and a goaltender that makes all the big saves.
Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk knew shortly after he got here in 2009 that he had to make a change at the goalie position. He knew Marty Turco, the Stars top goalie for nearly a decade, just was not the same guy.
"I knew we had to fix things from the back end out," Nieuwendyk said. "The starting point is goalie."
Nieuwendyk needed to restock the Stars goaltending position at the minor-league level and figure out a replacement for Turco at the same time. So, in 2010 he took a trip to watch Lehtonen play in a few AHL games. Lehtonen was rehabbing from two back surgeries and was trying to return to the NHL.
"I liked what I saw," Nieuwendyk said. "He had presence, size and a good command of the net. He was not in great shape at the time, but he recommitted himself."
Nieuwendyk could sense Lehtonen needed a change of scenery and a new start and he put together a creative trade with the Atlanta Thrashers that brought him to Dallas.
Lehtonen started last season on a roll, but with no trusted backup behind him he played too much and fatigue set in at the end of the season. He got off to that same kind of start this season before being sidelined with a groin injury.
"It's a bit of a blessing in disguise because it's given Kari games off and our record was pretty good during that time off," Nieuwendyk said. "He'll be refreshed and he won't get the workload he had last year. There's no hesitation in putting (backup Goalie Richard) Bachman in net to give Kari breaks."
Getting a solid defensive group in front of Lehtonen is still a work in progress.
Nieuwendyk's trade for Alex Goligoski last year has certainly helped. But overall, the defensive group is still searching for consistency. They were not good in recent losses against Columbus and Detroit. But they were great against Boston, forcing Lehtonen to make just 18 saves in a 4-2 win.
Still, when the game is close late, Lehtonen has the confidence to make big saves and the Stars have the confidence that he'll get the job done.
"I think there's room to grow. His mindset now is to show that he's not just a good goalie, but can be one of the elite goalies." Nieuwendyk said.
And as longtime Stars fans know, an elite goalie and a solid defense could bring another Stanley Cup to the Big D.