Kari Lehtonen Brilliant As Dallas Stars Hope To Build On Tough Loss

It's interesting to see how performances from game to game are judged, whether it's a win or a loss.

Last weekend, the Dallas Stars skated away with a 2-1 shootout win over the Minnesota Wild despite an extremely frustrating game from the home team. Players weren't happy and Glen Gulutzan was noticeably upset after the win, a win that was extremely important given the circumstances.

A few nights later, following an even worse game against the Phoenix Coyotes, the Stars roared to a 3-0 lead over the Columbus Blue Jackets with perhaps their best start to a game in nearly a month. Yet the Stars fell apart in the second period and allowed the Blue Jackets to pull within a goal. If not for a monster game from Kari Lehtonen and a big final minute stand, the Stars might have seen two important points slip away.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, that exact scenario played itself out in Buffalo. Ahead by two goals, the Stars succumbed to a late-game charge by the Sabres and allowed the tying goal in the final seconds -- going on to eventually lose in the shootout. The loss was unfortunate, as the Stars had played one of their more complete games of late and looked to have finally figured out what was ailing this team over the past few weeks.

Yet, we look at the loss with more optimism than we do the win against Minnesota and Columbus. The Stars played incredibly sloppy in those two wins, with turnovers leading to some soft goals against and mental breakdowns leading to some dicey special teams play. Sandwiched around one of their worst games of the season at home against Phoenix and it's understandable why fans were starting to light the torches, frustrated beyond belief with more inconsistent play.

After the loss in Buffalo, the Stars are still well within striking distance of a playoff spot and still control their own destiny. The team looked dangerous at times against an improving Sabres team and the chemistry that had been lacking was suddenly present. So we can look upon this loss with more optimism than doubt, with the hope that perhaps this team can actually figure things out and build some momentum.

It doesn't hurt that the Stars also have Kari Lehtonen in net.

"It's always tough when you have the lead and the other team scores late," Lehtonen said after the game. "If we ended up tying it and then losing it, I think we'd feel a little better than this way. But it's still a good point against a team that had a huge win a couple of nights ago, and we played last night."

Despite Buffalo's struggles this season, the Sabres went into last night's game as one of the hottest in the conference. Ryan Miller appears to have turned things around and last night he was incredibly good, keeping the score close to allow the Sabres time to catch up to the Stars. On the other end, Lehtonen was stunningly brilliant and bouyed his team to an important point, standing tall under an absolute barrage of pucks in the third period.

"I think we played a pretty good game overall. I think we maybe sat back a little too much in the third and gave them some momentum. I think we had only three shots," said Michael Ryder. "It's a big point for us, but we would have liked to get two. Give those guys credit, they came at us hard and managed to tie up in the last minute and they won in a shootout. Overall, we had a good game. It's just a matter of us sticking to the game plan in the third."

Once again, the players all said the right things after the win, lamenting the lost point -- frustrated about the inability to finish out a game once again. While giving up a two-goal lead in the third period once again brings up issues about the team's lack of confidence with a lead, we also have to remember that this was the first game the Stars had lost going into the third period with a lead in nearly two years.

"I thought right from the beginning we managed our game pretty good and limited their chances. We did what we wanted to do defensively. It came down to the last minute and they had to pull their goalie," said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. "Those things happen in the league. I'm sure we'll look at the last minute, but the shot gets through, it gets through to the guy on the backside - they've got an extra guy - and they get a bounce. That's just the way it is."

We've discussed this ad nauseum here on DBD, but we have to remember that this is a Dallas Stars team that is fighting against mediocrity. This is a team that, unfortunately, just isn't as good or as talented as some of the other teams they'll be facing the rest of this season. What has frustrated us the most was the lack of energy or passion, a needed commodity for a blue-collar team that relies on hard work in order to win on most nights.

This is why, even after a loss -- as well as after a win -- we have to hold onto the fact that while the Stars eventually lost, they showed us they still have the fire and the drive needed in order to win against talented teams in the NHL. Too many times over the past six weeks have we talked about soft plays with the puck, porous defense and stale offense -- with the team lacking the passion necessary to overcome these obstacles.

The players called themselves out, they had a meeting amongst themselves and the coaches and the came roaring out to a big start in Columbus. While the win against the Blue Jackets was shakier than we'd like, the team regrouped and played even better against Buffalo. The Stars have been horrible in back-to-back games this season and it was obvious they were focused on reversing the trend -- including the late decision to start Kari Lehtonen in net.

While the last-minute goal was painful to see and the lost point will make this feel like "one that got away", we have to view this game relative to what we've been seeing since the All-Star break. The coaches have adjusted their in-game strategies and so far it's paying off, and the line shakeup to put Tomas Vincour with Jamie Benn looks like it could work.

More than that, however, the Stars are once more playing with passion and physicality -- and that more than anything is something to feel good about. Lament the loss but feel confident after an overall good team performance; come out flat against Los Angeles on Sunday, however, and all of this momentum slips away.

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