After serving as the top dog in the Dallas net since the turn of the decade, Kari Lehtonen saw the Stars bring in Antti Niemi for reinforcements last offseason. The two thus formed a Finnish connection in goal for the Stars, nearly evenly splitting the action; in the end, they were approximately equally effective – which is to say, not very. However, Lehtonen in particular enjoyed great support from the Stars' highly effective skaters, who staked him to a 25-10-2 record despite his .906 save percentage ranking 41st among qualified netminders. Early indications are that we're looking at another timeshare here; even though the Stars have shored up their blue line, Lehtonen's fantasy owners are more than likely looking at another season of subpar ratios, but a good number of wins relative to the number of starts he'll make.
Stars coach Lindy Ruff said he plans to continue deploying a two-goalie system comprised of Lehtonen and Antti Niemi, the Dallas Morning News reports. Lehtonen and Niemi rotated starts fairly evenly in the regular season, with both netminders picking up 25 wins. Ruff ended up giving Lehtonen the lion's share of the starts in the playoffs, though hockey pundits have questioned whether he's the answer in goal after posting a 3.22 GAA versus the Blues through seven games of the conference semifinals. Of course, Niemi wasn't any better, having posted a 3.29 GAA after three postseason starts and five games in all. Ruff insists that goaltending wasn't the reason why his team missed out on the Stanley Cup this year and refused to comment on the possibility of trading Lehtonen or buying out his contract, which has two years remaining at a cap hit of $5.9 million.
Lehtonen conceded three goals on eight shots before being pulled for an also-ineffective Antti Niemi in Wednesday's 6-1 home loss to the Blues. Much like they say with quarterbacks in football, if you have two starting goaltenders, you don't have one. The Stars found this out the hard way in Game 7, as neither member of their platoon was able to stop a Blues offense that generated only 19 shots on goal. Lehtonen won six of his 10 postseason starts, but his .899 save percentage indicates that much of the credit for those victories should go the Dallas' potent offense.
Lehtonen will work between the pipes Wednesday night, facing the Blues at home in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals. Lehtonen was fantastic in Monday's Game 6, turning aside 35 of the 37 shots he faced en route to a 3-2 road victory. The 32-year-old netminder will need to be similarly sharp in Game 7, as the Blues will look to test him early and often in Wednesday's series-deciding tilt, hoping to weaken Lehtonen's confidence with an early goal. Most fantasy owners will likely shy away from Lehtonen in daily contests Wednesday, making the Finnish backstop an intriguing play for those willing to deploy a somewhat risky option in net.
Lehtonen was fantastic in a 3-2 win against the Blues in Game 2 on Monday, turning aside 35 of 37 shots. After underwhelming in Game 5's loss that featured three goals on 21 shots on home ice, the 32-year-old Finn made quite the statement in this one. Lehtonen weathered a continuous barrage from the Blues all night, who did everything they could to put the Stars to bed in front of their home crowd. Alas, Lehtonen and the rest of the Stars made sure that didn't happen, so he's practically a lock to get the nod again when Game 7 gets underway Wednesday. Through 10 appearances this postseason, Lehtonen is now 6-2 with a 2.58 GAA and .908 save percentage -- numbers that aren't far off his regular-season marks of 2.76 and .906.
Lehtonen will be between the pipes against the Blues for Game 6 on Monday, Lou Korac of NHL.com reports. Despite Lehtonen's struggles, it seems coach Lindy Ruff's Antti Niemi experiment has come to a close, for now, as the Finn will make his ninth postseason start. The Stars need to win the next two to stay in the hunt for the Stanley Cup, but given the inconsistency in goal, they should be just as concerned as fans about starting Lehtonen. However, unlike fantasy owners, Dallas does not have any better options.
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