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Olympic Dreams: Dallas Stars Goalie Kari Lehtonen Making His Case for Team Finland

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Even with a very fast start to the season, the Stars starting goalie still faces an uphill battle to make the Finnish national team for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

This isn't Kari Lehtonen, but the Dallas Stars goalie is making his case that he should fill the Finns crease at the Olympics.
This isn't Kari Lehtonen, but the Dallas Stars goalie is making his case that he should fill the Finns crease at the Olympics.
Martin Rose

If Kari Lehtonen is a longshot to make a team and an even longer shot to be a starter, that team has to have an embarrassment of riches at the goalkeeper position.

Unfortunately for the Dallas Stars starting goalie, that's exactly the position the Finnish national team finds itself in heading into the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Lehtonen is currently making his case for most underrated goalie in the NHL, standing on his head over and over again at key times for his Stars on recent road trips. But even with 2012 Vezina Trophy nominee Pekka Rinne's status uncertain because of an infected surgically-repaired hip, the Finns have six other NHL goalies, including Lehtonen, to choose from.

General consensus before the season started had been that Rinne, San Jose Sharks starter Antti Niemi and Boston Bruins starter Tuukka Rask were the names penciled in for the Finnish roster with Lehtonen and Niklas Backstrom just out of the picture. That whole group was invited to Team Finland's orentiation camp, along with KHL starter Petri Vehanen, NHL rookie Antti Raanta and Flames goalie Karri Ramo.

Again, it's a veritable cornucopia of above-average to elite goalie options. Somewhere, the Team Canada brass is weeping and trying to arrange a quick passport swap.

But Rinne's injury and Lehtonen's hot start are throwing a bit of a monkey wrench into the preseason projections. Ignoring Raanta, who has played mostly in the AHL this year, and Vehanen, who has solid numbers in the KHL but has never played outside of Europe, here's how the candidates stacked up before last night's games.

Name NHL team GP Wins GAA Save % Shots faced (per game)
Tuukka Rask Boston 17 11 1.64 .944 496 (29.18)
Kari Lehtonen Dallas 15 10 2.01 .934 454 (30.27)
Antti Niemi San Jose 18 10 2.29 .912 464 (25.78)
Pekka Rinne Nashville 9 4 2.31 .917 229 (25.44)
Niklas Backstrom Minnesota 7 1 3.30 .874 127 (18.14)
Karri Ramo Calgary 8 2 3.59 .882 228 (28.5)

It's easy to see who has played themselves out of contention, at least. Backstrom has struggled mightily with the Minnesota Wild and has been completely usurped as the starter by Josh Harding. The most notable thing Backstrom may have done this season is been run by Nazem Kadri a few days ago. Ramo isn't the source of the problems with a woeful Calgary Flames team, but he's not been much of a solution either.

That leaves the big four of Rask, Lehtonen, Niemi and Rinne. All have been impressive this season, none more so than Rask. Lehtonen is just behind him in both save percentage and goals against average, and both face a significant number of shots per game.

Niemi has been solid with the Sharks, who started out the season like gangbusters but have since cooled off. He is the only one of the quartet to backstop a team to the Stanley Cup as well, a factor that may count well in his favor in a pressure-packed tournament like the Olympics.

Rinne is the real wild-card here. Sidelined for almost a month now with a bacterial infection in his surgically-repaired hip, there's no real timeline for when he will return to the Nashville Predators. The latest update from the team is that he is still on crutches and is scheduled for a follow-up MRI at the end of November.

Given his performance over the last several seasons, and particularly his Vezina Trophy nomination in 2012, Rinne was almost assured of making Team Finland before the setback from his injury. And as Dirk Hoag over at On The Forecheck put it, it's not as simple as jumping off crutches and right back into the crease.

The nature of Rinne's injury means there will likely be several weeks of rehab once he can use his surgically repaired hip again. If he returns at the end of December, he might be able to get back in form for the Olympics. If he can't return to the Predators until January, though, would his resume impress the Finnish brass enough to take him despite very limited playing time this year?

There's no question Lehtonen's performance this season will keep him in the discussion for Team Finland. Assuming all the healthy goalies in question continue to perform in the same manner they are now, Rask and Lehtonen are playing at one level this season while Niemi lags slightly behind. But Niemi's big-game experience and Rinne's big-time talent when healthy means a very deserving goalie is getting left out in the cold come February.

Right now, Rask has almost written his name in pen on the Finnish roster. So the choice for the final two roster spots will come down between Rinne, Lehtonen and Niemi. Rinne's health is an obvious concern, and while Lehtonen has outplayed Niemi this season, Niemi does have NHL post-season experience with a championship to his name. It really depends on how much the Finnish brass values post-season experience versus single-season results and how long it takes Rinne to get back into form.

Some around the Stars have suggested that it might be better if Lehtonen doesn't make the team and can have the full time off during the Olympic break. After all, the Stars ride him to the point of exhaustion each spring, and he has a slightly off-kilter groin muscle that likes to seize up at inconvenient times.

But Lehtonen most certainly wants to be a part of Team Finland. He has represented his country at the World Junior Championships, the World Championships and the World Cup to very solid success. And he's making his case as loud as he can so far that he deserves to head to Sochi.