Dallas Stars Need a Backup To Step Up in Lehtonen's Continued Absence

Ronald Martinez

Despite a precipitous drop in shots against recently the Stars are seeing the opposition light up backup net-minding in Kari Lehtonen's absence.

The early refrain this season from Dallas Stars fans and observers, as it was last year, has been one bemoaning lack of puck possession (shots) and too many penalties. Kari Lehtonen kept their heads above, or near water level while facing opposing power plays and 40 shots a night, buying the team time to improve.

4.5 goals against per game in their last four outings doesn't reek of improvement, but there are encouraging signs, not the least of which is playing a very even game against an excellent Vancouver Canuck team for the second time in three games, and Glen Gulutzan was happy with his team's overall performance last night.

"Overall I thought that our work ethic was strong tonight and we improved certainly some of the things we've had for a couple of days in practice but it's a result-based business and we didn't get the result."

It's hard to disagree with him there. The Stars played with the Canucks, again, shot for shot, stride for stride, chance for chance, and were tied headed into the third period. Some might say that the Canucks' game is not at its best right now, but like the game against Calgary Sunday the Stars should be able to look at that video and feel good about the game they put on the ice.

Except for the part where they were scored on 4 times in Vancouver's first 18 shots.

There's a tendency in the hockey world at times, both by the casual observer and the well-initiated, to reduce hockey analysis to the oversimplified notion that if a team is losing, their goaltending is simply not good enough and is therefore to blame.

On the whole it seems a lazy path to take, and one lacking subtlety and nuance.

Yet here we are this morning for the second straight post in this space wondering if the outcomes of the Stars' last four games might have been different with Kari Lehtonen in net. He is 7-2-1 with a 2.12 GAA and a .934, and his understudies are a combined 1-6-0.

The fourth Canuck goal last night was certainly unavoidable on Nilstorp's part, and there's some discussion about the two point shots with screens. Should a goaltender be expected to stop those? Is the fact that Kari Lehtonen seems to find them more often than not simply spoiling all involved?

Certainly the second goal scored by Kevin Bieksa on a wide angle, one-handed backhand shot was not ideal.

"That was an easy goal. I don't know what to say," Nilstorp said after the game. "I was angry over that, but you have to continue playing and try to be focused on the next shot."

With only 22 to face, and only 42 shot attempts total (misses, blocked shots, shots, goals) the Stars kept their backup netminder out of harms way for lengthy segments of game play, and that's a positive trend.

Dallas has out-shot their opponents in four straight games, allowing just 24.75 against on average, yet have seen 18 pucks in their net in that span.

The question seems to be: Are the Stars simply a team that needs above average goaltending to compete in this league right now?

These trends in shots against and an improving penalty kill to power play ratio, on the other hand, suggest that they're moving in the right direction defensively, and are not putting their goaltenders under siege most nights as in the early part of the season.

So does that make them simply unlucky recently, or are the chances that they do give up, though fewer in quantity, still well above average in terms of quality, putting Bachman and Nilstorp at a disadvantage?

Either way it's looked at, the overall trend seems to be encouraging, even if the results right now are anything but.

So we're left with nothing to do but muster patience and wait. Kari Lehtonen will almost certainly not play Saturday against San Jose, so either through an offensive explosion, a stingy defensive effort, better netminding than they've been getting, or a combination of all three, some element of the Stars' game needs to step up right now and get this team back in the win column.

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