In the hunt: Stars making late playoff push behind Lehtonen’s recent surge

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The Dallas Stars have won eight of their last 10 games and are currently riding a three game winning streak. They are undoubtedly playing their best hockey of the season at just the right time.

Yet, the Stars (34-28-10) still remain 6 points behind the Calgary Flames for the final wild card spot in the Western Conference.

The late run has been sparked by the stellar net minding of goalie Kari Lehtonen, who has a 1.98 goals against average (GAA) and a save percentage of .925 in the month of March.

It’s no secret that things haven’t gone to plan for Lehtonen and the Stars this year. Pre-season, the Stars were a hot pick to not only make the playoffs, but to have a decent chance of advancing into the deeper rounds come spring.

“Luck hasn’t been on my side too much this year, so maybe now it’s turned” Lehtonen said after a recent 33-save shutout of the Chicago Blackhawks.

There have been times in which the 31-year-old Finnish goaltender has played well, but the puck still managed to find its way over the wrong side of the goal line.

Other times, Lehtonen’s performance has simply outraged fans and team members alike.

Just last month, Stars’ head coach Lindy Ruff was clearly frustrated with Lehtonen’s play. 

“The goaltending performance doesn’t match the effort of the team,” Ruff remarked after a 5-4 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. “Our goaltending has been tough on our team, and I think that’s where the frustration is.”

While Ruff is right in saying that Lehtonen has struggled mightily at times this year it is unfair to place the entire blame for the Stars’ lack of achievement on the goalie.

Furthermore, the blame in no way should be put on the offense. The Stars are currently second in the entire NHL with 3.1 goals scored per game.

Rather, it is the Stars’ defensive efforts that have been subpar all season long. The team currently ranks 26th in goals allowed per game at 3.2. While it might be true that the goalie plays a significant part this statistic, so does a team’s defense.

The return of big defenseman Patrick Nemeth from an arm laceration injury that had him out for over 4 months has helped the Stars revamp their depleted blue line.

Nemeth returned on March 3, a 3-2-overtime victory over the New York Islanders. In the 10 games that Nemeth has played since returning, the Stars are only giving up an average of 2.3 goals per game, almost an entire goal lower than their season long average of 3.2.

More experience for defensive rookies John Klingberg and Jyrki Jokipakka has also been instrumental to the Stars’ improved play recently. The duo has been playing far better of late than they did early on in the year.

With little surprise, Lehtonen attributes his recent success to a total team effort. “We’ve been working a little bit on being more aggressive when there’s traffic,” Lehtonen said. “That’s been working pretty good.” 

When the team plays better defensively in front of Lehtonen, it is easier for the big Fin to see the puck more clearly. And when Lehtonen is seeing the puck well, it leads to the superb play we have seen from him of late.

With only nine games left in the season and no control over what the teams in front of them in the standings accomplish, the Stars certainly need to help Lehtonen continue his exceptional performance.

If they don’t, expect to see the Stars watching at home during the playoffs for the sixth time in the last seven years.