On Monday night, Kari Lehtonen was magical. In the first Dallas Stars home playoff game in six years the veteran netminder stopped all 37 shots he faced in the game and quickly erased many of the doubts that he could find success in the postseason and lead his team to a crucial victory. Unlike the first two games in Anaheim, Lehtonen suddenly appeared calm and collected in net and challenged shooters and skated away with a big shutout victory.
Wednesday night's game was a bit of a different story, as the Stars were under siege in the first period and allowed two early goals that threatened to seriously derail the momentum grabbed in Game 3 and sapped the energy from the crowd.
The scoring started with a rather alarming goal from distance from a defenseman who hadn't scored in more than two calendar years, and threatened to return the Stars to the pattern of play from the first two games of the series. On the play, Alex Chiasson stepped in front of a Bryan Allen shot and replays seemed to show Lehtonen guessing the wrong way on a bomb from the point.
"He chose one angle and I chose the same at the same time and it left the glove side open," said Lehtonen after the game. "After that, they got the second goal but I think everyone settled down and I didn't have to touch the puck much in the second. We just dominated, and that was huge."
The domination he mentions is the 16-3 shot advantage by the Stars in the second period, with the Ducks not getting a shot off for almost the entire second half of the period. It's the sort of performance that the Stars have shown to be capable of at crucial times over the course of the season and the second period on Wednesday night completely changed the trajectory of this series.
Lehtonen, who admittedly thrives when he is seeing regular action throughout a game rather than in fits of frantic action around his net, seemed to relish in the easy workload in the final 40 minutes of the game and appeared to be rather refreshed after the big win.
"It was one of those great periods that we have played," said Lehtonen in regards to the big second period. "We worked really hard, didn't give them any rush chances. It was nice, just the cherry on the top to get those two goals and be tied going into the third."
Lehtonen was brilliant down the stretch for the Stars, especially in the final ten games, and was nearly unbeatable at home the second half of the season. He's used the momentum of being in front of the crowd to really create a home-ice advantage for himself and his team and he acknowledged after Wednesday's win that he feels more comfortable at the AAC and he's getting more comfortable each game.
"I think it's confidence," Lehtonen said when asked what the difference is at home. "I think as a goalie, you feel more comfortable at home. You know the ice, you know the boards and the lighting is the same that you're used to over a long season. I think that helps a lot. Also, the fans being behind us, that's a huge thing. But we know we have to win on the road and we have a chance here in the next one to turn that around and get a win [in Anaheim]."
Each time the big wins at home were mentioned, however, Lehtonen was quick to mention just how important it was for the Stars to figure out how to be successful in Anaheim.
"You have to keep going," Lehtonen said, referring to keeping the momentum moving forward in the series. "It's hard games there. Again tonight, either team could have won it. They were up 2-0 nothing and we were able to come back. It's a long 60 minutes, anything can happen, and we just have to stay humble and keep fighting."
Stay humble. That's something you may hear a lot about in the coming days, how even after two big wins at home this team and these players are taking nothing for granted and know they still have a lot of hard work ahead of them. They respect the Ducks and the skill on that team, no matter what may be said from the other locker room after games, and every player that talks to the media is rather reverential when referring to their opposition and how tough these games have been.
For Lehtonen, though, the wins at home -- in the playoffs -- are a validation of the hard work he's put in here in Dallas the past four seasons. He's become a big fan favorite in Dallas and while he might not have the gregarious personalities of Eddie Belfour and Marty Turco, both on and off the ice, his steady play and big saves have now put him firmly in the upper echelon of Dallas Stars goaltending legends.
That honor was never more apparent than, on both Monday and Wednesday nights, a very loud and enthusiastic "KARI" chant was let loose upon the AAC.
"That helps out a lot," Lehtonen said, allowing a rather big grin to develop when asked about the chant. "You hear it a couple of times during the regular season but it's been nice to hear it more here in the playoffs. It's cool when you hear it. Hopefully I can play really well and make them yell that more."
Indeed, Kari. Indeed.