When Kari Lehtonen went down on Saturday night in Phoenix the entire Dallas Stars fanbase held it's collective breath. Many said "there goes the season." The news that he could be back in as little as three to four weeks bolstered the hope that the Stars can survive this and the litany of other injuries suffered in recent weeks (Goligoski, Morrow, Burish, Daley, etc), but on the ice it doesn't matter when he gets back, because Andrew Raycroft is the number one goaltender for this team now.
Coming in 0-5-0, winless since last January, fan confidence in Raycroft was not exactly high despite what the organization had to say on the matter. Lucky for us he did his absolute best to allay any fears last night in leading the Stars to the right side of a close shave in Denver last night.
"It was real good for Rayzor," said Gulutzan last night. "You could see it in his focus over the last day or two... that's why we got him. He's been a starter in the league and you he can help you win games and that's what he did tonight."
Raycroft was nothing short of spectacular through two periods, stopping all 27 shots he faced while carrying a 1-0 lead nearly throughout. He was rewarded for his efforts in the third when the Stars decided to defend their one goal lead 200 feet away from him, out-shooting the Avalanche 15-9 in the games most critical frame and finally earning a two goal cushion.
"I thought our D did a good job of sealing off around him but he made the first saves and we did a good job around the net," added Gulutzan. "Then he made some real big saves which gives the bench a little pickup so...that was the difference."
"If we're going to be succesful long term that's how we have to play. We need to get comfortable with that."
One game does not a successful three-to-four weeks make, but this win might be the best possible way to start out this stretch for the skaters on this team. Raycroft showed them that he can be the guy for them, and that outside of the dreaded back-to-back situation (his only game action up until this point) he can help them carry the load.
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Razor (the other one, try to keep up) mentioned that Raycroft was 8-2 in "regular games" (non back-to-back situations) since coming to Dallas. Make it 9-2 now. In the next three weeks the Stars play only one back-to-back set, a date with the New Jersey Devils after visiting the Islanders.
We talked a lot about how many starts Richard Bachman might get before this game and concluded that if Raycroft struggles, it could be more than even the most cynical among us expects, given the importance of every point on every night in this tight Western Conference right now. Raycroft's strong start under heavy pressure on the road calms the nerves on that kind of talk, at least until the puck drops on Thursday night at the American Airlines Center.
The post game comments made it clear that the players are as happy for him (or more) as the fans are.
"Tonight was a big win for us. It was a battle to the end," Michael Ryder said. "We found a way to win and I think that's huge for Rayzor to get that. I think that's the main thing, that we're happy for him to get that win and it was a big road game for us."
"It seemed like when he came in we never played our best games and you need two goalies during the season to win. He's been there for us, supporting us, even though he hasn't played as much as Kari and we need him now. Tonight we showed him that we really want to play for him and we proved it with the way we played."
Mutual respect and support are the only way the Stars can survive this stretch. Goligoski's absence has clearly affected the power play greatly (now scoreless in it's last eight games) as has Trevor Daley's. A total team game is needed to collect points in times such as these and there's no better evidence of that than what the checking line of Fiddler, Nystrom and Dvorak have been doing lately.
The good news for Andrew Raycroft is that the power play is due. Jamie Benn is due. Mike Ribeiro is due. Brenden Morrow and Trevor Daley could be back as early as Thursday. The Michael Ryder and Vernon Fiddler injuries (which they're playing through, such as not to add even more woes in that department) will get time to heal now with only two games in the next nine days.
In short, if the team can collect two or three points in these two home games coming up (manageable against Ottawa and New York Islanders, one hopes) then the big, big road trip after that will be met with confidence and at least a little bit more in the way of health.
That belief and confidence will be key as the team limps to the halfway mark of the season, where they hope to get two of Joe Nieuwendyk's biggest acquisitions back in Goligoski and Lehtonen back.
Games like last night build that belief, and a team that recently lost seven of nine while watching man after man retreat to the locker room need it and the confidence gained to get them through until help arrives. Andrew Raycroft isn't going to be that good every night, but he won't need to be if the team can put together more periods like that third in Denver.