Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Kari Lehtonen ... he's a goalie ... a good goaltender

By Larry Wigge

It wasn't always a goaltending controversy in Dallas.

Kari Lehtonen or Anti Niemi. Or Niemi and Lehtonen.

After he beat the St. Louis Blues, stopping 35 of 37 shots, to give Stars a 3-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues -- sending the Western Conference series to a Game 7.

"The Blues had us on our heels for 50 minutes of the game pretty much," said Stars defenseman Alex Goligoski. "Kari was awesome."

"Kari was our MVP tonight," said center Jason Spezza, who had the game-winning goal. "That's what you need when you get up like that."

In reality, the goaltending controversy was fueled because at this time of the year netminders are the backstoppers -- they turned games around.

So, you can forget about ... his earlier transgressions.

"You can just flip the script," said Dallas coach Lindy Ruff. "Last game Brian Elliott made six or seven great saves for them. Just flip the name to Lehtonen tonight.

"Lehtonen gave us a heck of a game. Tonight he stood tall for us, and that happens in the playoffs. Goalies have to win you games sometimes."

Truth be known, a look at the numbers and Lehtonen isn't so bad in these playoffs --  6-2 with save percentage of .908 and a goals-against average of 2.58.

Mattias Janmark and Vernon Fiddler scored 20 seconds apart and Jason Spezza had a power-play goal at 16:49, which ended up being the game-winner.

"When you score goals early, it changes the game a lot," Lehtonen said. "Certainly I knew they were going to come after us. It wasn't always pretty at our end, but it was enough."

Lehtonen thought about his answer for a minute, then he added, "It was exciting. I just try to stay relaxed as I can and just follow the puck and not try to play it any other way than I’ve done the last 59 and a half minutes. It’s easy to say but today it worked."

Hmmmm!!! Let me take you back ... way back to the time after then-GM Joe Nieuwendyk obtained Lehtonen from the Atlanta Thrashers for Ivan Vishnevski and a fourth-round draft choice on February 9, 2010.

You can look at this now and say STEAL. And that never would have touched on the fact that Lehtonen, who was the second pick overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, that Kari in his early years in the NHL was dealing with back problems.

GM Joe Nieuwendyk looked at other goalies, but never saw Lehtonen as a gamble.

"It's no secret we were looking at other goaltenders," Nieuwendyk explained "Only Kari fit the bill for what we were looking for. A big goaltender with impressive quickness, a mind for the game -- so many talents.

"When I played against him ... he was an intimidating force in the net. There were nights when we went into Atlanta where you felt like you had to be pretty precise in order to beat the guy."

Nieuwendyk went on, "He was drafted second overall for a reason -- he's an elite goaltender when healthy. Now that he's on the right path, we're going to get a guy that's entering the prime of his career as far as goaltenders. I think it's a good risk for us."

"You look at Atlanta, they needed Kari or somebody else to be that stopper in goal," said former NHLer Keith Tkachuk, who spent part of the 2006-07 season with Lehtonen in Atlanta. "It happened that Lehtonen was the guy. The guy they drafted. The guy they counted on.

"He was a veteran, the Dominik Hasek or Ed Belfour. They didn't make it until they were 26, 27 and 28."

"I have a lot to prove for myself. I have a clean sheet, a chance to get back to be a great goalie in NHL," Lehtonen said.

There's an ease in the way Lehtonen plays. There is no hiding his size -- 6-foot-4, 215 pounds. He can be aggressive and challenge shooters at times, but he also does a good job of simply sliding back and forth in the crease and letting the puck hit him.

Lehtonen remembered the season-ending meeting with the Stars and recalls asking this question.

"I asked the training staff if they could find me a trainer in Atlanta," he said. "I've had far too many injuries."

That did it for Lehtonen.

"One of the things I love about Kari is he is a real battler," Stars general manager Jim Nill said. "People tell him he's injury-prone or out of shape, and he proves them wrong. People say he can't get us to the playoffs and he proves them wrong. He lets his actions speak for him."

Lehtonen is a quiet guy, and that might have something to do with his Finnish upbringing. It might also have to do with the fact he came to North America when he was 18, barely spoke English, and had to deal with the pressure and the transition.

"It's a different world over there and he had to make a lot of adjustments," said Stars goalie coach Mike Valley, who played in Europe during his career. "Now, you look at it and he's Americanized, he's comfortable in his setting and his role. I think he's a more humble person than he was. He's matured into not only a seasoned goaltender, but a seasoned person."

Lehtonen agrees. His marriage in 2011 to Abbe and the birth of his son Mikko in 2012 have helped ground him. So did a five-year, $29.5 million contract extension that makes him the highest-paid player on the team at $5.9 million per season. He has a pretty good gig, and he knows that. He also knows that he’s earned it, and that’s a comfort that comes with time, as well.

"When you get older and you get a wife and kid, you feel more responsible. It's just part of growing up," he said. "I think I work harder now and I also think I enjoy playing more. I realize that I'm a good goalie now. I think that was a big key, to not doubt yourself, to not worry so much."

Doubts? There are people ...

"You talk to people that are smarter than you, that help you out. Some professionals that really understand the brain," Lehtonen said. "That's been the biggest help for me."

A sports psychologist?

"Yeah. I've had some help in the past, too, but I got something new," he said. "I feel like that's been a great help for me."

What has been the focus?

"No comment," he said, and then laughs. "I gave you too much. I need something for my book."

The result is that he's now better able to focus on the big picture and not get caught up in what happened the shift before. A soft goal that might have sunk him for the rest of the game doesn't have the same impact it did earlier in his career. He's getting better at focusing on what's happening in the moment, not what's coming or what has already transpired.

"Of course, things go up and down," Lehtonen said. "When they're down, they will go up at some point."

It takes a while to figure that out, it's suggested to Lehtonen.

"It's still a work in progress," he replied.

And, there are still moments, those are the kind of moments Kari Lehtonen is learning to manage.

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