What a different game that could have been.
The Dallas Stars were coming off a prolonged break, playing just their second game in the past six days. They were well-rested, yes, but there was also some noticeable rust to shake off as they started their game against the Vancouver Canucks.
It started just about as well as the Canucks could have drawn it up. Less than a minute into the game, noted-Stars killer Radim Vrbata snuck behind the Dallas defense into the slot and had a wide-open shot at Kari Lehtonen 12 feet from the net. But the Stars goalie, completely calm and collected, snagged it in the glove, buying the Stars time to get their legs beneath them.
That was the Lehtonen the Stars have been missing this season. Sure, he's had a few standout games here and there (the shutout against the Los Angeles Kings immediately comes to mind). But by and large he's been below average, by both his and the league's standards.
That's been compounded by the fact that the Stars are built to be a team that needs above average netminding. They are a team that wants to live and die by a speed game, that doesn't mind giving up 30 chances if they can generate 35 of their own. That's the foundation on which this roster was constructed.
You can argue if that's a smart idea, and many have this season, but once a team has committed to that style, it's committing to needing above-average goaltending. The Stars got all that and more on Wednesday.
The game-opening shot from Vrbata could have been a back-breaker, a play that gave the Canucks offense confidence and left the Stars with a sense of "here we go again." Instead, as the first period rolled on and Lehtonen continued to stop everything Vancouver threw at him, when he bailed out the power play with a pretty shorthanded stop, you could see the Stars confidence grow.
By the time the second rolled around, the Stars got a little bit of a transition game going and had generally better gap control and defense on the Canucks forwards. They outshot the Canucks 17-4 in the period and got the crucial break when Eddie Lack deflected a Colton Sceviour centering pass into his own net.
Even when the third came around and the Canucks started pressing, the Stars looked less rattled than they have late in many games this season. Other than the power play, where the Canucks had three shots, it was a relatively evenly played period (shots 12-7 Canucks overall, 9-7 at even strength).
The Stars are a different team when Lehtonen is on his game in a way that goes well beyond simply allowing fewer goals. Their transition game is smoother, their passes more on point. Even the play in the offensive zone is more cohesive as the pinching and rotation that might mean a slightly more risky play comes more naturally.
It goes back to trust. When players trust the next line of defense behind them, they are more focused on doing just their jobs and not too much. They will take the risks that the Stars system is designed to take because they feel confident the puck will stay out of their own net.
That plays into the best type of catch-22. When Lehtonen is playing well, the Stars play better in front of him both defensively and offensively. When the Stars play better in front of him, Lehtonen is called on less to bail them out. When he's called on less, he gives up fewer goals, which helps his confidence and leads to him playing better. When he is playing better...
The performance does leave Stars coach Lindy Ruff in a little bit of a tough spot. Backup goalie Anders Lindback seemed to get his game in order in a brief AHL stint, and Ruff said the plan was to get him an NHL start very quickly to capitalize on that. But can you really justify not starting Lehtonen again on Friday against the Calgary Flames, one of the teams the Stars hope to leapfrog to get back in the playoff race?
Dallas plays every other day until Christmas, concluding its tour of Canada on Sunday in Edmonton and playing Toronto in Dallas the Tuesday before Christmas. Then they have three consecutive days off for the holidays. Those seem like very winnable games, and if Lehtonen is showing signs of getting his game in order, it'd be hard to keep him out.
Of course, if Lehtonen is battling a nagging injury, as Ruff implied last week, more rest may be beneficial. The extra time off the last week certainly seems to have helped, after all.
They almost have to default to whatever helps Lehtonen most. Lindback (or Jussi Rynnas or whatever backup goalie eventually emerges from the morass) can certainly help the Stars in the short-term. But Lehtonen is the Stars present and future, the highest-paid player currently on the roster and central to all of their plans.
And he finally showed why again on Tuesday.