2012 NHL Playoffs: Health, Patience & Focus Fueling Kari Lehtonen's MVP Season

Throughout their time in Dallas, the Stars have enjoyed an embarrassment of riches at the goaltending position. When the team first moved to Texas, Andy Moog helped fuel the Stars to becoming the hot ticket in town as he set the foundation for the goaltending standards the franchise now enjoys. Eddie Belfour would replace Moog, who was in turn replaced by Marty Turco -- the starting goaltender for the Stars for nearly a decade.

It hasn't just been the starters in net the Stars have become known for, as Dallas has groomed Arturs Irbe, Roman Turek, Manny Fernandez, Dan Ellis and Mike Smith to all become successful starting goaltenders in the NHL. It's amazing to think of just how good the goaltending situation has been in Dallas since 1993 and how this team has yet to have to truly deal with a negative goaltending situation.

A big reason for this was the foresight by GM Joe Nieuwendyk, who knew that Turco was on his last legs in Dallas in 2010 and made the shrewd trade to send Ivan Vishnevskiy to Atlanta in return for the beleaguered Kari Lehtonen. It was the low-risk, high-reward type move that Nieuwendyk has become known for as the Stars GM and the trade for Lehtonen has become the catalyst for the Stars' transition to the future.

The Dallas Stars are 10-0-1 in their past 11 games and find themselves holding onto the top spot in the Pacific with a death grip. While the Stars have enjoyed a significant change to their approach and are playing much, much better as a team during this run -- it's been the stellar play of Kari Lehtonen in net that has truly driven this team's success this season. Considering where Lehtonen's career was when he was traded to Dallas, the resurgence of his career has been nothing short of remarkable.

When the Stars first traded for Lehtonen back in February of 2010, it was unknown if the Finnish netminder would ever be healthy enough to fully take on the starting position for the Stars. He was coming off of back surgery and had recently returned to the ice after over a year off the ice. The trade by the Stars was a trade about potential and Lehtonen's incredible natural abilities on the ice, despite his struggles with conditioning and staying healthy.

After the trade was made we took a deep look at what was good and what was bad about Lehtonen's netminding, having to go back to early in the 2009 season to really get a good feel for the goaltender the Stars had traded for. I walked away impressed by Lehtonen's size and excellent positioning and it was clear he was a goaltender who was incredibly aggressive against the shot, sometimes leading to bad positioning as a result.

One thing was very clear, however. Lehtonen's conditioning and overall athleticism was severely limiting his effectiveness as a goaltender. His positioning and mechanics were nearly flawless yet his scrambling ability was limited and his glove hand was noticeably sup-par. This was why, throughout his career in Atlanta, Lehtonen had become known for incredibly inconsistent play where he'd be brilliant in one game and the other allow six goals in a lopsided loss.

The conditioning was the biggest worry and the Stars felt that if they could get that under control then the rest would fall into place, and the former 2nd overall draft pick might actually live up to the potential we saw on tape. Lehtonen played in 12 games for the Stars after being traded and once the playoff hopes for the season were gone, took over as the starter for the remaining three weeks.

In those 12 games, Lehtonen went 6-4-0 with a 2.81 GAA and it became clear that while there might be some work to do -- the potential the Stars believed they were trading for certainly existed inside the quiet, humble goaltender.

The Stars were dedicated to getting Lehtonen into shape and after moving him to Dallas assigned a personal trainer to ensure that Lehtonen's conditioning drastically improved to prepare him to become the starting goaltender for the Stars the next season. Marty Turco departed for Chicago and the Stars signed Andrew Raycroft as a backup, but it was Lehtonen who would have the success of the team squarely on his back.

Last season, a svelte and smooth Kari Lehtonen took the ice and enjoyed the finest season of his career to that point. Winning 34 games and appearing in a career-high 69 games, Lehtonen would post a 2.55 goals-against average with a solid .914 save percentage and it became clear that a healthy and in-shape Kari Lehtonen was exactly what the Stars had hoped to get when they made the trade.

Lehtonen was the best player on the Stars last season and it still wasn't enough, as the increased workload led to fatigue down the stretch and the Stars missed the postseason by just one point. It was clear, however, that the trade had worked out in spades and perhaps Lehtonen would be more than just a "bridge" goaltender -- he could be the next in a long line of franchise goaltenders for the Dallas Stars.

This season, Lehtonen has improved upon his breakout year for the Stars. The catalyst for the incredible 11-3-0 start, it was Lehtonen's unfortunate injury in November that set off the inconsistent nature of the middle part of this season that put the Stars into a fight for the playoffs once more. Since his return, Lehtonen has enjoyed the greatest stretch of games of his career and at the age of 28 is finally living up to the potential that made him a top draft pick back in 2002.

Lehtonen returned from his injury just before New Year's and it was clear he would need time to get back to the comfort he had enjoyed in net before hurting his groin. In the ten games leading up to the All-Star break, Lehtonen and the Stars would win just three of those games, with Lehtonen allowing four or more goals four times. It was against Anaheim, a game that followed an epic breakdown against Minnesota, that kick-started the Stars rise to the top of the Pacific.

Since that game, a shutout of the Ducks on January 24 in the game before the break, Lehtonen is 13-4-3 and has been the hottest goaltender in the NHL in that span. He's put up an astronomical .938 save percentage and is riding a 1.69 goals-against average across 20 games -- showing this latest surge is more than a fluke, it's proof of just how much Lehtonen has turned the corner this season.

The Stars have now won six straight games and are 10-0-1 since a devastating loss to the Nashville Predators and in that span Kari Lehtonen is 8-0-1 with a 1.29 goals-against and .955 save percentage as he continues to improve with each and every game. Lehtonen posted his second shutout in two games on Tuesday night in Minnesota and like many of his big victories this season, Lehtonen has used impeccable positioning and perfect reflexes to be spectacularly-unspectacular.

While his renewed health and conditioning has played a big part in his career resurgence, it's his new approach in net under goalie coach Mike Valley that has really made the big difference in his time in Dallas. While Lehtonen remains aggressive on the top of his crease the overpursuits are no longer there, the plays where he would vault out of the crease to make an aggressive save but be out of position for the rebound.

The positioning excellence is better than ever before yet perhaps the biggest change in his game has been the glove hand, perhaps now his biggest strength in an area that was his biggest weakness. Lehtonen struggled at times with keeping his glove high and was easily susceptible to be being beaten over the left shoulder. Now, Lehtonen's calm ability to make glove saves and control his rebounds has been the catalyst for what could be the best season by a Dallas Stars goaltender in nearly a decade.

The Dallas Stars have always enjoyed incredible goaltending yet have never quiet had a netminder like Kari Lehtonen. A quiet, humble hockey player who is as calm and classy in net as you'll find across the NHL, Lehtonen doesn't get nearly the respect he deserves as he continues to drive the Dallas Stars forward into the postseason. One reason for this is that goaltenders' legacies are defined in the playoffs and while Lehtonen has proven himself this season, much of his national recognition will depend on what happens should the Stars make the playoffs.

Lehtonen's play has helped solidify the defense and has provided a calming presence on the ice for the players in front of him, who in turn are playing exceptionally well at moving traffic from in front and minimizing second chances. It's clearly a team effort for the Stars right now yet it's Lehtonen's career resurgence in net that is truly driving the success of the Stars and setting this team up for perhaps the best finish to a season in nearly four years.

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