Before the season began, we all knew what it was going to take for the Dallas Stars to be successful and hopefully make it to the postseason after two disappointing seasons. The Stars would need above average and consistent offense to overcome a questionable blueline. The Stars would need consistent efforts throughout the season, especially on the road, to somehow win more than two games in a row; going on significant winning streaks is paramount to finishing in the top eight in the conference.
Most significantly, the Dallas Stars would need a great performance from Kari Lehtonen. The Stars have not received the level of consistent goaltending this team needed the past few seasons and with the Stars in a bit of transition mode, Lehtonen would have to be the steadying force in net that holds it all together from October to April.
One thing we all agreed on, on top of everything listed above, was that the Dallas Stars could not overwork Lehtonen. For a goaltender coming off nearly two full seasons riddled with injury, and one who had previously had the reputation for being an out-of-shape hockey player, it was known that for Lehtonen to play consistently at a high level then the Stars had to be careful with his workload throughout the season.
Of course, that hasn't been the case at all through 23 games. While the Stars have accomplished everything needed to be successful -- and more -- the team has leaned heavily on Kari Lehtonen and we're left wonder: just how long he keep up this pace?
Through 23 games this season, Kari Lehtonen has started in all but three games. Currently, he is on pace to start somewhere around 70 games this season, with Andrew Raycroft on pace to start just 12 games over the course of the year.
Forget the fact that Kari Lehtonen hasn't played an entire season since 2006. Forget the fact that Lehtonen has had major injury issues the past three seasons, including missing most of the past season after major back surgery. Forget that Lehtonen is just now in decent shape for the first time in his career.
70 games during the course of a season is too much for any goaltender to truly survive and if that team does make it to the postseason, then there's likely a good chance that goaltender is unable to maintain his solid level of play for more than one round. Just ask the Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche about riding a goaltender into the ground and then having his production slip in the postseason.
There's no doubt that the major reason the Stars are sitting on top of the Pacific Division right now is the consistent play of Kari Lehtonen. While the stats haven't exactly been stellar (Lehtonen sits in the middle of the pack in the NHL in both GAA and save percentage), he has game after game made the big saves at the right time and most importantly -- given his team the chance to win.
Marc Crawford cites a favorable schedule as the reason he's played Lehtonen so often, but that theory falls apart when you consider how he's handled his goaltenders over the past two weeks. After a lackluster effort in a loss to Toronto, Crawford started Andrew Raycroft against the Ottawa Senators. It was just his second start in the month of November and some thought that Lehtonen appeared to be wearing down a bit under the early season workload. The start for Raycroft sparked the Stars' current four-game winning streak and -- more importantly -- it gave Lehtonen three full days off.
Since that day off, Lehtonen has started three games in four nights, including playing in a home-and-home series over the weekend against the St. Louis Blues. Despite the Stars facing a tough schedule over the coming week (home against Washington and Minnesota, on the road in Columbus), Crawford decided it best to play Lehtonen in all three games and there's no doubt the current plan is likely to have Lehtonen start against the Capitals and Wild.
Taking a step back, it's easy to see why Crawford is playing Lehtonen like he is. For one, Lehtonen has shown no signs of injury or wear and tear over the first two months of the season. In fact, the three days off last week have apparently re-energized Lehtonen; he's allowed just four goals in three games. Crawford wants his goaltender confident and he wants his team winning; so far, his handling of Lehtonen and Raycroft has played out perfectly through 23 games.
Yet you wonder when the wall will come tumbling down.
At some point, Lehtonen will need to start getting regular rest. It's obvious that the Stars are more than capable of making the playoffs and if that's the case, the Stars are going to need Lehtonen to be at his best in April (and hopefully May). Lehtonen is feeling fresh and confident now, but what happens in March when he's feeling the effects of his first full season since 2006? More importantly, the Stars are going to need him to be at his absolute best during that time, when the Western Conference playoff race starts to really heat up.
We've seen Marc Crawford take this route before with his goaltenders, and you worry that the Stars aren't looking to the future of this season as much as they should. It's understandable that Crawford wants to continue to build upon the momentum that the Stars are riding right now, but it's not as if Andrew Raycroft being net once every four games or so will be a true detriment to the team.
There's going to be a point this season that the Stars will have to give Andrew Raycroft more than two starts in a month and you hope that time doesn't have to come in March and April. Perhaps as we enter December the Stars will turn to Raycroft more often and give Lehtonen the rest he needs.
Whatever the case, Kari Lehtonen has already more that lived up to the expectations of the season. He's been steady in net, he's leading this team to victories and he's already played at a better rate than anyone expected. The key here is to not push the luck and actually take some much needed precaution. I guarantee it will be worth it in a few months time.