When Detroit Red Wings grinder Justin Abdelkader decided to take the shortest route between two possible points last night and drove a straight line through goalie Kari Lehtonen, everyone involved with the Dallas Stars organization held their breath for a few long moments.
The power play for goalie interference was certainly nice -- indeed, it ended up being just the opportunity the Stars needed to tie the game late at Joe Louis Arena -- but Lehtonen was slow to get up from the hard collision. And if there's one thing the Stars have learned in the first 20 percent of this season, it's that Lehtonen's presence is still the most irreplaceable thing on the team.
With Lehtonen starting in net this season, the Stars are 7-2-2 and have given up at least four goals only once -- the season-opening loss to the Florida Panthers. Lehtonen has a goals against average of 2.01 and a save percentage of .934, both very high but not quite absurd enough to be considered unsustainable (like, say, Jean-Sebastian Giguere's 0.75 goals against average and .977 save percentage or Josh Harding's 1.16 goals against average and .949 save percentage.)
A brief note -- Semyon Varlamov is coming back to earth a bit with a .933 save percentage and 2.10 goals against average after starting the season on that absolute tear.
Stars backup goalie Dan Ellis, meanwhile, is 1-3 with a 3.60 goals against average and .895 save percentage, though it should be noted that he did a very good job taking over for Lehtonen in the middle of the game against the Winnipeg Jets and helped the team hang on for that win, which officially went to the big Finn. Jack Campbell also got his first NHL start and picked up a loss as the Stars gave up five unanswered to the Anaheim Ducks.
All of those Ellis starts as well as the Campbell start came in a five-game stretch where Lehtonen was sidelined by a mild groin injury, something that has occurred once a season or so ever since he came to Dallas. And to be fair to Ellis, the Stars have allowed an average of 34 shots per game in the 4.5 games he has played for the team while Lehtonen has faced a slightly lower amount at 31.5.
But what Lehtonen has offered in his starts that Ellis couldn't quite muster, at least in his small sample size of starts, was his ability to make that save at that time. That's an impossible thing to quantify, obviously, but I think even Ellis would admit it's been the big difference between the two sets of starts.
Take Tuesday's shootout victory over the Boston Bruins. Yes, the Stars took an early 1-0 lead, but they were essentially skated off the ice by the Bruins in the early going, falling to a 15-1 shot disadvantage before eventually clawing their way back to even. The only reason that game wasn't out of control before the Stars could get their engines going was the play of Lehtonen.
Again, this isn't to discredit the play of Ellis -- the Stars made any number of unfortunate, inexcusable turnovers in front of him. His whole string of starts began with a Brenden Dillon gaffe that let the Minnesota Wild take a lead 15 seconds into the game. Lehtonen has been beaten after such gaffes this season too. But he has also made plenty of saves in those situations where Dillon or Sergei Gonchar or Cody Eakin or Ray Whitney has turned the puck over 30 feet in front of the net.
The hardest thing for Lehtonen is all of his fabulous play now won't be enough to change the perception of him around the league. It's been well documented that he was ranked the 19th best goalie in the league in a recent edition of The Hockey News, a ranking that likely has its roots in his injury history, his lack of playoff berths and his usual, if slight, fade down the stretch.
With a team that so relies on his ability to clean up defensive zone messes, Lehtonen has to be practically brilliant in far too many games, meaning that even a slight hiccup can easily lead to a large number of goals against. And they clearly struggle in front of a variety of backup goalies when he goes down with an injury.
That does say as much about the team as it does Lehtonen -- the Stars still need elite-caliber netminding just to remain competitive, at least many nights. It's why he'll remain underrated -- great goalies on mediocre teams don't get recognized until those teams do something surprising, like make the playoffs or put up once-in-a-career numbers. And it's why everyone around the Stars cringes so hard when he's slow to get up.