As we've expected and have been speculating on, the Dallas Stars will indeed start Andrew Raycroft tonight against the Los Angeles Kings. Tom Wandell and Toby Petersen will be back as well, as Jake Dowell and Krys Barch are likely to be the healthy scratches tonight.
With the Stars playing the second night of a back to back and in the middle of three games in four days on a road trip, this news isn't exactly surprising as one of the biggest goals this season for the Stars is to keep netminder Kari Lehtonen healthy and fresh.
What is interesting, however, is that Raycroft is getting the start against a team that is arguably the toughest opponent for the Stars so far this season. The Kings have a potent and dangerous offense paired with a stingy defense and excellent goaltending and even with Lehtonen in net, this was going to be one heck of hard game for the Stars.
In his career, Raycroft has a 2-3-0 record in seven games vs. LA, with a 3.77 GAA and a not-so-bright .883 save-percentage. The goals-allowed against the Kings is the second worst in his career, with 4.40 goals allowed versus the Calgary Flames.
For some, coach Gulutzan's decision to start Raycroft will be the wrong one -- especially if the Stars lose. No matter what the outcome tonight, however, I think that starting Raycroft against the Kings is undoubtedly the right decision.
Last season, the Stars played Kari Lehtonen almost exclusively in the second half of the season and he wore down -- along with the rest of the team. He was still good but not as great as he had been earlier in the year. It's fair to say that it was only natural that Lehtonen would tire in his first full season in a number of years but the fact remains that if the Stars had been able to play Raycroft a few times down the stretch, perhaps Lehtonen would have been better when the team needed it most.
This is the first true test of the season for the Stars and it's a great measuring stick for just how much the team can count on Raycroft between the pipes. Coach Gulutzan needs to know that he can count on his backup goaltender against top NHL competition and that he can rest Lehtonen when needed; if not, then the Stars must find an alternate solution.
I'll be interested to see what the Stars strategy regarding the backup goaltender becomes if Raycroft has a bad game again tonight. He hasn't played since allowing four goals in Chicago two weeks ago -- another tough road game -- and the Stars need to have a goaltender they can count on in back-to-back situations. Playing Lehtonen in three out of four days all throughout the season is not what the Stars need to be doing.
I know the current thought is that it's early in the season and Lehtonen is hot and feeling rested but this is more about seeing just what the Stars have in Raycroft and what they can expect moving forward. Losing this game tonight is not going to wreck the season, and the Stars have set themselves up perfectly with the chance to take six of eight points on the road with this current plan.
Playing Raycroft is not a white flag going up, and it shouldn't be. Teams should always be able to feel that they can put their backup goaltender in net and still have just as good a chance at winning as they would with the starter. If not, might we see something happen with Raycroft down the road? If the Stars can't rely upon him to win, then perhaps a change is needed.
As it is, the Stars will need to play much better in front of Raycroft than they have in front of Lehtonen. Even with the big Finn in net, the Stars were going to need to find another level of play tonight against a very tough opponent. This is a good test early and one that is needed -- there should be no questioning on whether this was a smart decision or not.