2012 NHL Playoff Race: Kari Lehtonen, Michael Ryder & Loui Eriksson Goodness

Mar 24, 2012; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen (32) waves to the crowd after the game against the Calgary Flames at the American Airlines Center. The Stars defeated the Flames 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-US PRESSWIRE

This is a fairly nerve-wracking weekend we have lined up for ourselves.

The impact that these next two games will have for the Dallas Stars is incredibly significant, something that we've only been able to begin to analyze. The Stars could conceivably lock down a playoff spot by Sunday morning or find themselves in a must-win situation in the final three games with St. Louis looming as the final test on home ice.

Essentially, this next week boils down to a five-game playoff series for the Stars. The games are against playoff-level teams and three wins essentially mean that Dallas is able to move on to the next round. It's a great small-sample test of just what this Dallas Stars team truly is made of and for many of us, we're thankful the team is getting this chance at all.

It's fitting, of course, that this season will likely come down to the Stars' ability to play on the road and in a back-to-back situation. Playing in Vancover tonight, the Stars will travel down the coast to take on the San Jose Sharks tomorrow night in a situation this team has struggled with all season long. If the Stars had been able to win just a handful of games in back-to-back situations, then the playoff race for the Stars would have been locked down much sooner than now.

Alas, the biggest weakness for the Stars this season will be put to the test. While the season alone does not ride on just these two games, staying as far away as possible from a last-game "win and you're in" situation is the ultimate goal.

It all starts tonight in Vancouver. And it all starts with Lehtonen, Ryder and Eriksson. More after the jump.

Michael Ryder was signed this summer for two years and $7 million, and not many people really noticed. He had been a third line role player in Boston the past few years and had been seen as something of a "disappointment" compared to the contract he had signed.

In Dallas, Ryder has enjoyed a career renaissance and it's helped saved the season for the Stars. Leading the team with 35 goals and 62 points Ryder is on pace for the best offensive season for a Stars forward since Loui Eriksson put up 36 goals in 2008-09. Ryder's goal-scoring explosion has helped the Stars season rebound after a mid-season turning point and there's no telling what he might do if the Stars reach the postseason.

At $3.5 million this season, Ryder has become perhaps the best valued forward in the entire NHL. It's astounding to see what he's capable of night after night and for the first time in a long while, the Stars have a forward that enters the offensive zone thinking shoot-first and nothing else.

For the past few years, it's seemed as if the Stars would become too pass-happy and would look for the perfect play too often. That's something that has cropped up this season at times as well and it's usually occurred in the midst of a scoring drought. Ryder, especially since the All-Star break, has helped turn that mentality around with his willingness to put the puck on net from anywhere and everywhere on the ice.

Ryder is going to be the key to the success for the Stars these next few games and into the postseason (hopefully). The way the Stars have been built, the reliance on the top line is astoundingly high for offensive production and much of that is centered around his ability to score and put pucks on net. He leads the Stars with 198 shots, and a 17% shot percentage and has helped fuel Ribeiro's creative juices once more.

Consider that in the past ten games when Ryder scores a goal, the Stars are 5-0-0. When Ryder does not score, the Stars are 1-4-0. That's not insignificant.

Joining Ryder on this mountain of importance in Loui Eriksson. We've always known how good he could be but there were questions as to just how much of his prior success was tied to having Brad Richards on his line. After 77 games this season there could be some thought that Richards was actually holding Eriksson back, keeping him from truly becoming the leader on the ice that he's become this season.

For the third straight season Eriksson has at least 70 points, just one of four players to accomplish that feat in that time span. He's quietly become one of the most consistent and dominant players in the NHL and due to his inherent nature, will likely never reach the levels of stardom he truly deserves.

With just three more points this season, Eriksson will match his career high and it's more than likely he'll pass that mark by season's end. At just 26 years old, Eriksson is just now reaching his prime as a hockey player and out from under Richards' shadow he's showing us just how good he can really be. Eriksson' presence has helped save the top line for the Stars from defensive ruin and Gulutzan's coaching changes the past few months have unleashed perhaps the most underrated offensive powerhouse in the NHL.

There should be no doubt at this point that Eriksson is the best player on this team, no matter how good Jamie Benn can be. That's certainly a good debate to be able to have.

Nothing matters more than Kari Lehtonen, however.

These discussions about how good certain players will be, these analyses articles of the playoffs and the chances the Stars have at he division title...none of it would matter without Kari Lehtonen.

Allow me some hyperbole, if you will.

A goaltender's legacy is built in the postseason. Much like pitchers in baseball and quaterbacks in football, a goaltender's legacy is directly tied to the success of the team in front of him whether that's fair or not. It's just how the sports world works.

I'm on record as saying that Kari Lehtonen may be enjoying the best regular season for a Dallas Stars goaltender...ever.

The Stars have had Marty Turco and Eddie Belfour set very high standards. Yet both goaltenders, during their best years, had so much more to work with. Those teams were defensive juggernauts that were buoyed by stellar goaltending when needed.

If the Dallas Stars make the postseason it will be because Kari Lehtonen led them there. He's been so incredibly clutch all season long and while there were certainly some stumbles, it's impossible to deny that without him the Stars would have been preparing for a lottery pick in a few months' time.

It's a shame that Lehtonen won't get nearly the attention he deserves, despite being a top-five goaltender in the NHL over the course of this season. The goalies that will get the most attention all play for better teams, better defenses and in better markets. For those that follow the Stars the closest, however, we know just how important he's been to the success of this season.

The Stars have made the commitment to ride with Lehtonen the rest of the way. I didn't know there was even a decision that had to be made.

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