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There's no denying that the 2011-12 season has been the most unpredictable and crazy ride yet for the Dallas Stars and its fans. A young, rookie head coach hired to help guide the team through a tough transition phase for the franchise while the team itself goes through bankruptcy just to be able to be sold to an actual, in-the-flesh owner. With Brad Richards departing the team and the Stars fighting just to stay above the salary cap floor it's no wonder that many wrote off the Stars and expected yet another top ten pick for a team that would miss the postseason for the fourth straight season.
What has happened has been nothing short of unexpected and incredible. An 11-3-0 start to the season raised hopes for the Stars beyond reasonable limits despite advanced numbers telling us it was mostly a fluke an the Stars would come crashing back to earth at some point. Crash, they did, and have spent the four months since October fighting to scratch their way back into the playoff mix.
As the time this article is written, the Dallas Stars currently sit in the top spot in the Pacific Division and consequently have the 3rd seed in the Western Conference. It's a testament to just how far they've come since the beginning of February and how much good an extended points-streak can be. It's also a sign of just how poor the Pacific Division has been this season with several teams woefully under-performing compared to prior expectations.
The question, of course, is whether the Dallas Stars are proving they are indeed a playoff team.
Just over 15 days ago, on February 20th, the Dallas Stars were in trouble. Coming off a painful loss to the Nashville Predators on home ice the Stars had just one win in their previous six games and had fallen to 10th in the conference, three points behind 8th place Calgary. The Stars were reeling and it seemed as though another post-break slump would doom any chances of the Stars headed to the postseason.
What was most discouraging was how despite an inconsistent January and February the Stars were still very much in the conversation yet unable to take advantage of packed playoff race and move up the standings. The Stars looked as though all confidence had been sucked from the team and despite what was mostly hard work, the Stars kept falling short.
It was this inability to take get into the next gear that led many to speculate the Stars were headed for a fire-sale at the trade deadline, especially when it seemed we were facing a fourth straight season with no playoffs.
What happened next was remarkable and somehow the Dallas Stars have been able to maintain the momentum. A dominant win against a horrible Montreal team seemed to give new life to the Stars, who have have earned points in seven straight games and now hold their playoff destiny in the palm of their hands.
Leading this push to the postseason has been the stellar work of Kari Lehtonen, who at this point is no doubt the team's MVP. Last season Lethonen won 34 games for the Stars while appearing in a career-high 69 games and had respectable numbers for a poor defensive hockey team. Because of injury he won't come close to that number of games played this season, which appears to be nothing short of a blessing the closer we get to the playoffs.
Last year the Stars rode Lehtonen so hard he began to break down in the final months of the season, despite relatively little health concerns in his first full season in Dallas. A lack of trust in Andrew Raycroft and Lehtonen's ability to bail out his team led to his starting all but one game in March and April. This year, healthier than ever and relatively rested, Lehtonen has shined when the Stars needed him the most.
As it stands now, Lehtonen is on pace to have the best season for a Dallas Stars goaltender since Marty Turco's magical 2002-03 season. Unless a breakdown occurs, Lehtonen could finish with a stellar 2.29 goals-against average and .922 save percentage, incredible numbers considering the amount of shots he's faced -- in 2002-03, Marty Turco faced 1,359 shots in 55 games, while Lehtonen has seen 1,333 in 46 games this season.
Recently, the Stars have discovered how best to utilize their players to the best of their abilities and it's paid off with an offense that suddenly knows how to score. Prior to the points streak, the Stars had scored more than three goals just three times in 16 games, giving Lehtonen horrendous scoring support. In the past seven games the Stars are scoring three goals per game, nothing special but certainly more support than Lehtonen has received.
Since the All-Star break, Kari Lehtonen is 10-3-4 with a 1.94 goals-against average and an incredibly high .932 save percentage. Logic tells us these numbers will average out as the season progresses, just as we saw after the first month of the season, but there's no doubting that when his team has needed him most Lehtonen has responded with truly elite play in goal -- exactly what the Stars have needed during a brutal stretch of the schedule.
It goes beyond just the goaltending however, especially when we look ahead to determine whether this is a playoff team or not. The Stars are certainly showing they have the ability to make the charge to the postseason but there is still a monumental task ahead, especially considering the fact that the schedule gets harder from this point forward.
Making the postseason and being a "playoff-worthy team" are two completely different things and while we've certainly seen a different team over the past three weeks or so, any sort of extended slump will have these good feeling come crashing down. For now, fans are excited about being able to actually talk about the playoffs and the Dallas Stars and after three years without -- it's tough to discourage any good feelings fans have about the team right now.
As we attempt to determine whether the Dallas Stars are indeed a playoff team we look first in goal. With Lehtonen healthy and Richard Bachman providing stellar backup play as well, the Stars have a tandem in net that will allow them to compete with any team in the NHL. It's rare that a hockey team is able to overcome poor goaltending to make the postseason or be successful once there and for a team like the Stars, the goaltending is exactly why the Stars will have a shot at the playoffs.
There has been more to this recent string of wins than the goaltending, with Glen Gulutzan changing his in-game strategy to better accommodate his players and a penalty kill that is suddenly playing out of its mind from game to game. The Stars, however, will never be able a high-flying offensive juggernaut -- at least not this season -- and if we are to determine whether the Stars are indeed a playoff-worthy team, we need to look no further than what is happening in goal.