Can Dallas Stars Maintain Tenuous Playoff Position Without Kari Lehtonen?

Thomas B. Shea

Olympics, trade deadline, Modano night- Check, check and check. It's crunch time now. Can they do it without Kari?

The Olympic break has passed. The trade deadline has passed. The Mike Modano jersey retirement ceremony has passed. It was a month full of extracurriculars. Of contemplation on the past and on the future. And it's over.

What remains now is strictly no-nonsense in nature. Only the grind. 18 games. The extra stuff is done.

I had planned on utilizing this time and space on the site for further exposition on the events of Saturday afternoon, extraordinary as they were, but the other side of that begs instead for a way forward, as the club, ever-mindful of its past, builds toward its future.

The Dallas Stars are indeed still standing on the other side of all of it as mid-March arrives. They're not just in the hunt. They are currently the hunted, three points up on the Phoenix Coyotes, four points up on the Vancouver Canucks and five points up on the Winnipeg Jets.

(Moment of silence for the Nashville Predators, 10 points back, and a -39 goal differential...)

Lindy Ruff's bunch was presented with an opportunity to make some hay coming out of the break with five of their first six at home, and the took advantage with a 4-1-0 record. The lone loss a dominating performance by Dallas that was thwarted by Ben Bishop in net.

Where the real fortitude was displayed was in these last two games against a team behind them, and a team ahead of them.

Dallas dominated Vancouver from the word "Go" Thursday night, chasing Eddie Lack from their net in an emphatic 6-1 win. The Canucks lost their 10th game in 11 tries, though have since bounced back with a win over the Calgary Flames.

Saturday night's win was more of a statement. Having done their part in staving off the advances of Tortorella's bunch, they were charged with following perhaps the second or third most emotional night in franchise history (the Modano ceremony) in the form of the Minnesota Wild.

And it was not pretty. The first period was a mess. The second period saw four power plays for Minnesota. The Stars' went four and a half minutes of a major power play of their own without threatening until a sensational individual effort by Tyler Seguin broke through.

But in the end they got it done. They dug deep. They proved they belong in the conversation, not just for the second wild card spot, but maybe even for the first as well.

(The Central is so stacked...)

They also did it for their fallen netminder, Kari Lehtonen, and that's where things get really interesting with 18 to go.

A fourth line player took out a division opponent's all-world goaltender Saturday night without so much as a token fine from the National Hockey League, and it now falls on Tim Thomas' shoulders to shepherd a flock with which is he unfamiliar until such time when the more-than-likely-concussed Lehtonen is able to return.

Cristopher Nihlstorp has since been recalled, and one of Dallas' four post-deadline AHL call-ups has been exhausted.

The mustachioed Thomas, 39 years of age, was supposed to expertly spell Kari, better than had Dan Ellis, and provide a small, yet crucial boost in their points percentage when the big Finn needed rest. Now he finds himself as "the guy."

Luckily, he likes being the guy. He needs it, from all accounts. Luckily, too, Jim Nill chose to pick him up at the deadline as if he foresaw this. He might be a witch.

For Thomas' part, Ruff said he is not a conventional netmidner- That he's a "battler" and that he's "athletic." He'll get the nod in Columbus tonight.

The Stars finish off their big stretch of home play this evening before embarking on a stretch to the end that sees them play 11 of 17 on the road. They must deal with the Blues (twice), the Penguins, the Blackhawks, the befuddling Lightning again, and the Predators who always give them trouble twice more as well.

And the finish- Sunday, April 13th... at Phoenix. As if tailor-made for this race, this year.

So let's hold hands and wince and cry and throw our remote controls across the room and fist pump and just generally ____-off our loved ones as the NHL's most compelling time of year nears.

We don't know if the Stars' offensive depth at forward is enough, or if Goligoski and Daley can keep it up, or how long Kar Lehtonen will be out- But it sure will be fun to find out.

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