DALLAS – Whether Kari Lehtonen wants to admit it or not, no one was under more pressure when Game 3 began than the 30-year-old goaltender.
The Dallas Stars, newcomers to the playoffs after a six-year hiatus, lost both games in Anaheim and desperately needed a victory on Wednesday to keep hopes alive for a longer postseason stay. And Lehtonen didn’t have a single playoff win on his resume.
Right away, the Ducks tested Lehtonen. Saku Koivu found the puck on his stick in close against Lehtonen and fired, only to have it smack off Lehtonen’s pads. It was Lehtonen’s body language after the save that had Stars goalie coach Mike Valley expecting a phenomenal night from his netminder.
“He got that shot and some others early and I could see a little swagger,” Valley said. “He relaxed and played his game. Having him as long as I’ve had him, I know everything about him it seems like. You just know how he moves and you can see when he’s feeling it and when his mind is in the right spot. You could tell early on that he was there.”
The Ducks could tell, too. They tried to get pucks through him any way possible. But he closed off the 5-hole, blocked enough of the net to watch top-shelf attempts hit the glass behind him. He got his long legs and skates out to keep wraparound attempts away and he stoned point-blank opportunities.
“We had probably, I think, the most chances we’ve had in the series before but we couldn’t beat him,” Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said. “That’s what Lehtonen does. I’ve coached against him for many years and have seen him play games like that and he can do it, but we’ve got to find ways to score. We had chances to score. We just didn’t get it done.”
Lehtonen simply wouldn’t allow it. He made 37 saves, some of them stops that looked destined to flutter the netting behind him. Koivu had a few. Nick Bonino had one in the slot that Lehtonen blocked and Corey Perry took several whacks with traffic in front and still, Lehtonen didn’t let anything by him.
He donned a Stars cowboy hat after the game, worn by the MVP of the game as voted on by the team, and didn’t try to hide his smile.
"At the age of 30, it was about to get that first one," Lehtonen said. "It was nice to be able to be back there and help the team out."
While there are a bunch of new faces on the ice and in the front office, it’s easy to forget that Lehtonen is Joe Nieuwendyk's greatest legacy to this Stars team as the general manager. He traded for Lehtonen when he was an extra goalie in Atlanta dealing with a balky back and helped build him up into a solid starting goaltender. J.J. McQueen and Brad Jelllis got him in better shape and Valley put him through the mental and physical paces to improve him on and off the ice.
“He’s changed a lot since he got here,” Valley said. “He’s playing a style that suits him now. He’s a big goalie, so he’s letting the game come to him. He has unbelievable athleticism, but it’s a balance of being fundamentally sound and using that athleticism when you need to.
“I think just as important, he’s matured as a person. Goaltending is so much mental and being able to deal with different situations, being able to deal with pressure, being able to have a short memory and when you let in a goal, move on to the next one. If you have a bad or great game, move on. He’s early learned to do that and that’s maturity and experience. He doesn’t dwell on things. He learns from them and moves on.”
Lehtonen played like a true No. 1 goalie this season. He was a big reason this team ended its playoff drought. But the value of a goalie is determined in the playoffs. Things get tougher. Players get more physical. Traffic in front of the net rivals rush hour on the 405 in Los Angeles or 635 in Dallas.
Teams spend much of their time trying to make life as uncomfortable as possible for the goalie. Lehtonen pushed through all of it in a must-win game for the Stars.
“It’s an extra layer of confidence,” Valley said. “Any time you can accomplish something you haven’t done before, which is a playoff win for him, that’s huge. That’s a big stepping stone. Hopefully, it will create a lot more stepping stones.”
Now Lehtonen must prepare to do it all again on Wednesday, when the Ducks are liable to push even harder to get Lehtonen off his game. It will be yet another test for the goalie, who passed his toughest exam yet in Game 3.