When the Dallas Stars traded for goalie Tim Thomas at the trade deadline, it made sense on a number of levels.
While Dan Ellis had certainly been game on a number of occasions this season, there were plenty of nights that the Stars were practically begging for a better game from their backup goalie - games that really sting here down the stretch. And Thomas, despite numbers that were only slightly better than Ellis' on average, was a man who had a history as a full-time starter, not to mention a goalie who has led his team to a Stanley Cup in recent seasons.
The theory was that Lehtonen, who tends to get ridden into oblivion at this time of year, would be able to take a few more games off in the extra-busy Olympic schedule while the Stars would have a lot more trust in their backup goalie being able to pull out a few wins.
Returns so far on the experiment have been mixed. Thomas was brilliant in his debut for the injured Lehtonen, coming in cold against the desperate Minnesota Wild and slamming the door, and he was a huge part of the emotional win over the St. Louis Blues in the wake of the Rich Peverley collapse. But he struggled during the Stars recent losing streak at times, noting that there will be an adjustment period with his the team because he plays a significantly different style than Lehtonen.
His numbers are fairly pedestrian with Dallas. He is 2-2-1 with a .884 save percentage and 3.55 goals against average, both significantly higher than his .909 and 2.87 with the Panthers. He's had a couple notably bad games, particularly the 7-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, where he was replaced by Cristopher Nilstorp, and the 4-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, a game after which he mentioned that he had to play better for his teammates.
At the time, the Stars had four remaining sets of back-to-back games, and Lehtonen played both ends of the first, leading the Stars to a win over the Winnipeg Jets while keeping the team in the game but eventually falling at the Chicago Blackhawks.
That was mitigated slightly by the fact that the Stars had two consecutive days off following the Hawks game, a luxury they only have one more time this season - after the upcoming back-to-back set with the Nashville Predators and the St. Louis Blues.
The final sets of back-to-backs actually comes as a usually unheard of four games in five nights, with a South Florida swing against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers, a day off, then a home back-to-back against the Nashville Predators and Columbus Blue Jackets. The CBA usually doesn't allow for such situations, but the Blue Jackets game had to be rescheduled for all the most understandable reasons, and this was about the only hole on the schedule for both teams.
So the question becomes how many of these games does Thomas start, or does he even start the mid-week game against someone like the Carolina Hurricanes?
Looking at the back-to-back sets alone, the likely suspects are probably the Predators, against his former teammates on the Panthers and then the Predators again, but the Stars could very well go with Lehtonen on both ends of the games at the end of this week with that extra day off to recover. Or they could choose to play Lehtonen in the games they feel more confident about winning - which would be against the Predators and Panthers - and use Thomas in the bigger challenges.
Some of that will probably be contingent upon how the playoff race stands, if the Stars and/or Phoenix Coyotes really falter and the other takes a significant lead that they can then act to defend rather than trying to stay on the offensive. For the moment though, particularly with one game still remaining, neither looks like they're planning on taking the conservative route.
The Stars picked up Thomas just for this situation and this time of year, hoping he would be the difference that finally got them over that hump into the playoffs. The question becomes how much will they use him now that the situation is upon them.