New mindset turning into success for Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen

After a change in mindset, Kari Lehtonen is more comfortable in the spotlight. Tom Pennington/Getty Images

FRISCO, Texas -- Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen is leaning on the doorway into the Stars' dressing room, when his 3-year-old son walks into the room.

Lehtonen stops a sentence mid-thought and turns his attention to his boy -- a mop of red hair wearing a white Stars jersey and a tiny pair of black untied Chuck Taylors. His name, Mikko, is printed on the back with his dad's familiar No. 32 in big numbers on the back.

"Hey, buddy," Lehtonen says, greeting his son.

Mikko points to the hockey game on the television across the room. It's a replay of Game 1 between the Stars and St. Louis Blues, a 2-1 Stars win that gave Dallas a 1-0 series lead heading into Sunday's Game 2 in Dallas. (Puck drop is 3 p.m. ET.)

Mikko points to the television and wants to know who is in goal.

"It's me," Lehtonen answers.

Mikko loves watching the games. He also has a heck of a shot for a kid who is soon turning 4 as spectators at the Stars practice rink would soon find out on Saturday afternoon.

A few minutes later, Lehtonen takes his son out on the ice, grabs a handful of pucks and starts sliding passes his way as Mikko redirects them toward the net. It's just father and son on one end of the ice, enjoying the moment. On the other end, Antti Niemi is getting in extra work with goalie coach Jeff Reese.

Stars assistant coach Curt Fraser is standing outside the glass, watching. Fraser was the head coach in Atlanta when the Thrashers took Lehtonen with the second overall pick in the 2002 draft. He knows Lehtonen's history, the good and some of the not-so-good.

"Our scouts were very high on him," Fraser said, recalling the earliest days of the talented Finnish goalie, now 32 years old. "He came with real high grades on everything. He could do it all. Talented goaltender. Great skill, moves well. Big size. He had it all."

His path to this point in his career in Dallas has been well chronicled -- the inconsistencies in Atlanta, the inability to stay healthy, the questions about his physical fitness and commitment to taking care of his body off the ice. And perhaps the concern that is most pertinent now, which was whether he had the mental makeup to be a great playoff goaltender.

Here's the thing about Kari Lehtonen: He's really smart. He's a guy who analyzes everything and often has a unique perspective on whatever it is he's thinking about.

It makes for great conversation. He's funny, with a dry sense of humor. All these things make him a very likable person and teammate.

Some of these qualities, however, aren't what you always want in a goalie. Sometimes it's better just to have a guy in there who doesn't think. A guy who just reacts and moves on.

Perhaps that's the case even more so in Dallas, where the style of play lends itself to high-quality scoring chances against the Stars. When things break down in Dallas, they often break down spectacularly.

It's a different style. For Lehtonen, it meant changing the way he thinks about the game. It meant evolving his mindset. After last season, a year in which Lehtonen finished with a career-low .903 save percentage, he reached out for help in the summer. He's careful not to reveal too much here because this is private to him. The way he put it was simple.

"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.

This is the first postseason in which Lehtonen has a save percentage over .900. Through five games, he's 4-1 with a .925 save percentage and is a big reason the Stars have quietly positioned themselves as a legitimate playoff threat.

If there was a moment in these playoffs that most captured his mental growth, it came in the final minute of the clincher against the Minnesota Wild. It was complete pandemonium, the kind of craziness that tended to go the wrong way for Lehtonen in the past. But there he was, making a big pad save on Nino Niederreiter, saving it by a hair. One more inch another way and this story might be quite different. That's hockey.

And those are the kind of moments Lehtonen is learning to manage.

"To his credit, he's changed his makeup more this year," Stars forward Jason Spezza said. "I've noticed a difference this year to last year, in his overall demeanor through the day-to-day stuff. I don't think he rode the highs and lows as much as in the past when he felt like all the pressure was on him."

Those comments were relayed to Lehtonen.

"That's good if he sees that," Lehtonen said. "I think it comes with age, too."

Lehtonen arrived in the NHL with a tantalizing mix of skill and technical proficiency. He was always so big and smooth, just a natural in the way he moved side to side.

Now, life's experiences in big moments on and off the ice are starting to add to that package.

"The mental side, it's something that takes time to figure out," Lehtonen said. "I don't think anybody ever figures it out. I'm getting better."

He looks at his son Mikko and concedes that being a dad has a lot to do to with it. Then, he politely excuses himself to go spend time with his son.