If one thing has become painfully clear these past few weeks, is that the current struggles of the Dallas Stars cannot be attributed to just one player or one aspect of the team. It's become a comedy of errors with the Stars as of late, as anything and everything has gone wrong and contributed to by far the most painful slump in recent memory.
Early in the season, the Dallas Stars used superior goaltending from Kari Lehtonen and Andrew Raycroft to build a lead in the division and climb to the top of the Western Conference. After two years of sub-par goaltending from Marty Turco and several backups, it was refreshing to see a goalie with the confidence and skill of Lehtonen take over between the pipes and provide the steadying force the Stars had needed for some time.
As the team continues it's downward spiral towards the bottom of the conference standings, however, we're beginning to see the chinks in the armor becoming more and more pronounced. The offense has completely dried up, the special teams is at its worst level of the season and the defense is looking more and more like the overachievers they apparently had been.
At the crux of these issues is the goaltending, as the Lehtonen is starting to struggle along with the rest of the team. Perhaps his struggles set off this collapse and perhaps a return to form will save it.
Three weeks ago, as the Stars set the timer on this timebomb in the middle of the season, Kari Lehtonen and Andrew Raycroft combined to allow 24 goals in six losses and what had been the absolute strongest part of the team was suddenly its weakest link.
What struck me the most when I went back and watched most of the goals from the past few weeks, it's how everything that makes Lehtonen so good he is suddenly struggling with. Kari Lehtonen has always been a positionally sound goaltender that relies on his instincts, positioning and size to gain an advantage on shooters. He's aggressive in the crease in order to cut down angles and while he's never be known as one of the most mobile goaltenders in the NHL, he is able to move laterally better than most goaltenders his size.
What has happened is that suddenly the basics are failing Lehtonen and he's trying to overcompensate and that is opening him up in ways we didn't see the first 50 games of the season.
Against Vancouver and Philadelphia, Lehtonen suddenly found himself incapable of making a glove save. It seemed that teams were specifically targeting high glove on Lehtonen and it was paying off more times than not. Lehtonen has never had the best glove hand but this was something else entirely.
The amount of goals being scored in this manner skyrocketed and Lehtonen began to anticipate high glove, thus putting himself out of position as well as overthinking shots before they were made. It's impossible to say what adjustments he was attempting to make between games but it was very clear that Lehtonen was rattled -- the fact that Andrew Raycroft has been playing worse was not a good sign -- and he has been forced to battle through these struggles from one game to the next.
Lehtonen has markedly improved since those games but the Stars are still not receiving anything close to the level of goaltending he provided to start the season. Perhaps it's fatigue setting in, perhaps this is the true Lehtonen and we were seeing an overachieving goaltender all along. The fact is that no matter how much he may have rebounded from those horrid performances, Lehtonen is still a far ways off from getting back to the form that will lead the Stars to the playoffs.
Against Calgary, Lehtonen allowed two goals that I never believed I would see from him this season. Both were long range shots that were easily stoppable, yet Lehtonen was unable to react appropriately to the incoming shots. As with the rest of the team, Lehtonen is not playing with a high level of confidence at the moment and while his competitive drive and will have not wavered, a goaltender loses all his ability to effective do his job when he has no confidence.
Right now we are not seeing a calm and collected Lehtonen in net. He's not allowing the game to slow down and just come to him; instead, he flipping and flopping all over the ice and looking more like a Marty Turco and not the goaltender the Stars need him to be. There's too much overcompensation as he moves laterally and too much aggression as he challenges shooters.
As with most of the top players on the team, Lehtonen is trying too hard while playing with less confidence than he needs to succeed. While this allows him to make the saves that are of the highlight reel variety -- some incredible saves at that, nearly every night -- what is really troubling about his struggles is the sudden rise is "soft" goals allowed. It's feast or famine with Lehtonen right now and that is not the type of goaltender he is when he's playing at the top of his game.
There was a time when Lehtonen, despite facing 30 or more shots nearly every night, calmly went about his business and made all the tough saves look easy while giving his team a chance to win nearly every single night. Now, Lehtonen is making some spectacular saves while the Stars are losing, and he's allowing more goals per game than at any point during his time in Dallas.
Lehtonen's performance is directly tied into the performance of the defense, and it's impossible to lay all the blame at his feet. Perhaps his level of play at the beginning of the season covered up for most of the warts on defense and now that he's struggling the defense is becoming exposed. This has led to a much higher number of quality shots coming towards Lehtonen as suddenly the defense is lacking all semblance of confidence as well.
Kari Lehtonen returning to the level of play we enjoyed to start the season will not suddenly make the Stars a good team again. It will, however, give the Stars the chance to actually win the game -- which is perhaps all they need at this point to get back on track.