COMMENTARY | It's a familiar story for Dallas Stars fans, especially during the ongoing five-year playoff drought. Those diamonds in the rough playing in Dallas, hidden gems who under no circumstances should be able to remain hidden. Yet they do. Loui Eriksson was perhaps the most underrated winger in the league during his time in Dallas, and Jamie Benn would be a household name if he played anywhere else.
But in a non-traditional hockey market, and with a team that has struggled through several half-rebuilds the last few years, it's easy for the national media to overlook what's happening with the Stars. There was a play though in Friday night's game against the Colorado Avalanche which will make it difficult for anybody to overlook one particular player on the Dallas Stars.
Kari Lehtonen has been a key part of the Dallas Stars during his time with them, posting consistently impressive numbers through four seasons with the organization. This season, he ranks 11th in the league with a save percentage of .939. However, take away those goaltenders who have only made three or fewer starts, and Kari moves up the list to 5th. A 1.82 goals against average isn't too shabby either. Know who's right in front of Kari in both of those categories? Semyon Varlamov. A player who is garnering national attention--aside from his issues off the ice--for backstopping the Avalanche to an incredible 11-1-0 start. While Kari slips by unnoticed playing for a team posting a 5-6-2 record.
Solid numbers, and yet whenever national media outlets discuss the league's top goaltenders, Kari's name is conspicuous in its absence. In their preseason rankings, ESPN had Kari in a three-way tie for 20th. And this week's Hockey News ranked Kari 19th among NHL goaltenders. The truth is that, regardless of what people say, or what fancy stats they use, ultimately it is results that matter. It's why baseball still keeps track of wins and losses for pitchers, and hockey does the same for goaltenders, despite everyone being fully aware that a pitcher or a goalie can only do so much. A pitcher's perfect game would be wasted if his team failed to score a run, and a goaltender's shutout through regulation could still result in an overtime loss if his team failed to net a goal themselves. Meaning a high-powered offense will do as much or more for a goaltender's win-loss record as his own performance will. This is a team sport after all, and so long as Lehtonen plays on a young team rebuilding he is destined to be viewed as a middle-of-the-road netminder, unnoticed by the national media who are too busy focusing on Boston or Chicago or other primary markets.
Well take notice everyone.
Playing against the league-leading Colorado Avalanche in Dallas Friday night, the Stars were just beginning to come back from an early two goal hole. Alex Goligoski had cut the lead to one and the Stars were starting to dominate possession. But during a goal-line scramble in front of the Dallas crease, Lehtonen was unable to corral the puck, and lost his stick to boot as the puck was knocked into the end boards and caromed around to John Mitchell, standing to the right in front of a wide open Stars goal.
And that's when the magic happened. Kari flung himself across the crease in a desperation attempt to block the gaping net, glove outstretched. He missed the glove save. But somehow, as he twisted his body to reach across, he also swung his legs in a half-bicycle kick, and the puck, that had evaded his glove, was stopped mid-air as Kari made a pad save that could very well hold up as save of the year.
He has the stats to be included amongst the elite goaltenders of the NHL. What he doesn't have is the results. No playoff appearance yet to prove his worth on the national stage. So instead, and while we wait for the Stars to begin clicking and make a run for the playoffs this season, Kari has thrust himself into the spotlight by doing something few others can do.
There's no more avoiding it now. Kari Lehtonen is elite.
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- Ice Hockey
- Kari Lehtonen
- Dallas Stars