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Kari Lehtonen's Playoff Demons: Fact or Fiction?

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Kari Lehtonen looks like the starting playoff goalie with just a few games to go in the season. This is not what we thought would happen.

Kari Lehtonen in his less sartorial days.
Kari Lehtonen in his less sartorial days.
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

"How can we blame Kari?" said Hartley, who said his team froze after the early goal. "No. 1, we don't score, so at best we would still be playing. Kari Lehtonen is a young goalie. He played hard, he played very well for us but he was by himself on the ice."

- Atlanta Coach Bob Hartley, after a 7-0 defeat to the New York Rangers in Game 3 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals

"Sometimes hockey's cruel," Ruff said. "It was cruel, really cruel, to a group of guys that worked as hard as they possibly could tonight. There wasn't one guy that was a passenger."

- Dallas Coach Lindy Ruff, after a 5-4 OT defeat to the Anaheim Ducks in Game 6 of the 2014 Western Conference Quarterfinals

Those two quotes came at the ends of Kari Lehtonen's only two playoff series in his career thus far.  The first quote, by everyone's favorite coach, preceded a perfunctory game four that would see the Rangers sweep the Thrashers out of their only playoff appearance before their move to Winnipeg, where the franchise has maintained its playoff winning percentage.

The second quote came after a rather more painful series against the Ducks in 2014, when a dynamite two-goal performance by Trevor Daley was two minutes or so from sending the Stars back to Anaheim for a thrilling game seven against the number one seed in the West. You know what happened after that.

Two years later, Dallas is now the team looking to finish atop the West.  And, heart-poundingly dominant as they have been, all critical eyes are on their bottom-of-the-league save percentages, which are a rarity (though not unheard-of) among Stanley Cup champions.

Dallas's success this season has more or less coincided with getting decent goaltending, as success usually does.  For the first 40 games or so, this was due to Antti Niemi playing well, but 2016 has flipped that script.  Now Kari Lehtonen looks like the go-to netminder for Dallas once again with just a handful of games left in the season.

Niemi was brought in to reinforce the crease this summer, and his 2010 Stanley Cup run usually found its way into all those introductory pieces talking about what he would bring to Dallas.  Interestingly enough, Niemi actually had two much better seasons in San Jose in terms of even-strength save percentage after leaving Chicago, but we all know about San Jose's playoff history, so perhaps it's best not to invoke that.

In any case, the net appears to be Kari's to lose, today.  Given the emotional slings and arrows the above video still hurls at us, that isn't a completely comforting thought for a Stars team that seems prepared to make its first deep playoff run in far too long.  Goaltending matters, and it matters a lot.  Nevertheless, here are the goalies the Stars have:

(Playoff stats, 5v5 only. For reference: last year's playoff teams that did anything got at least a 92% from their even-strength goaltending.)

(Note: Sv%L, M, and H are War-on-Ice terms for low-, medium- and high-percentage shots on goal as defined at the bottom of this page.  I won't deduce anything from them here, but I thought they were interesting, so I left them in.  Be informed.)

First: Hey look, the Thrashers were terrible!  How terrible?  Well, Marcel Hossa outplayed Marian, and Bob Hartley left Kari Lehtonen in for seven goals against in game three in order to keep Johan Hedberg rested to start game four.  This was the same Bob Hartley that had started Hedberg in game two, only to go back to Lehtonen after apparently blaming Hedberg for the avenging ghosts that haunted Philips Arena.  So, if Lehtonen does have playoff demons from that series almost a decade ago, they're probably old and apathetic spirits by now. The Black Velvet of ghosts, you might say.

Something else to note: For all the flak the Stars' defense got in 2014, they actually had the best 5v5 shot suppression of any playoff team either goalie has been on.  And while Lehtonen's 90.83 SV% isn't something you bronze and mount in your study, it only works out to about one more goal every three games than Niemi's Cup-winning year.  That's far from catastrophic; and again, that was with Sergei Gonchar and Trevor Daley on patrol.

On the other side of things, we also see why Niemi was the goalie of choice for the playoffs when he was signed.  He has done what a playoff team needs its goalie to do a few times, and Kari Lehtonen has not.  Goaltending is a fickle thing, and perhaps moreso on the Stars than on any other team; but Dallas will need Kari to show that he can at least approximate a Niemi playoff season. (Just not the most recent one, por favor.)

Anecdotally, of course, we can't not think of that horrible, awful game six.  We see Lehtonen down, exposing the top of the net to Nick Bonino.  We remember the rather stupid call that reduced manpower to 4v4 in the first place, allowing Anaheim to pull their goalie for a 5v4 advantage in those final, fateful two minutes and change.  No matter how many nice saves Kari made in that flurry of action that Dallas couldn't withstand, even-strength stats don't tell the story of how goalies perform in situations like that.

And since the sample size for "opposing goalie pulled" data is so small as to be useless, let's check out the shorthanded numbers, keeping in mind that those two game six tallies were not "technically" power-play goals, and thus aren't included in Kari's numbers below:

(Playoff stats, shorthanded only)

Again for reference, last year's playoff teams that went deep got (with a lot of variance) an 86-88 SV% when shorthanded.  That's not to say that teams can't succeed with less--Henrik Lundqvist put up an 83.87% on the kill, and the Rangers went on a nice run--but just to add context.  (Of course, looking at the Stars' bottom-dwelling goaltending numbers to date, Dallas may well have to succeed with less.)

This is where things get concerning or uplifting, depending on your perspective.  The Stars' two goalies have one "good" playoffs and a lot of ["Hey look, what's that over there?" *bolts away*] playoffs on the penalty kill between them, and that's not encouraging.  Yes, special teams aren't usually the deciding factor of a playoff series, but think back to that game five against Anaheim.  Ryan Garbutt gave Corey Perry the Ol' What-For, and Perry drew a five-minute major on which the Ducks scored.  Outside of that five minutes, the Ducks would add three more power play goals, going an absurd 4/6 on the man-advantage.  Jamie Benn would score a shorthanded goal, but killing penalties is only non-vital until it becomes absolutely critical, and you never know when that's going to happen in a playoff series.

The uplifting part here is twofold.  One, you can take solace that the majority of Kari's six SHG allowed were in a single game, and a rather anomalous game at that.  Two, the Stars' penalty kill is actually improving lately, and that's been reflected in the goaltending. (Did you ever think a 21st-ranked PK would sound so good?)

***

So, if you want to be a Pollyanna, you can say that the Stars' goalies have had their playoff numbers weighed down by their shorthanded goals allowed, and that those numbers are bound to be better this year. That is a nice, positive outlook.  For Kari Lehtonen, that may be a necessary one.  He's not been Karri Ramo or anything in his limited playoff experience, but he's hardly been Tuukka Rask either.  Still, with sample sizes this small, why not hope for things to improve?  It really mightn't take too much for Lehtonen to get the Stars past round one.

The Stars dominated the first half of the season with pretty unimpressive goaltending.  The Stars had a miserable January/February in goaltending (and top-line scoring), and they are still atop the conference.  Recently, Kari Lehtonen has had far more good games than not-good games, and that's been reflected in Dallas's improved record.   Conclusion: There is no team less dependent on its goalending than Dallas.  That is probably a very good thing.

Kari Lehtonen has eight games of playoff experience in his career.  The fact that he hasn't had more is partly his fault, but not completely.  This year, it will be partly up to him to become a Playoff Goalie.  As Marty Turco could certainly tell him, you're never a Playoff Goalie until you are.  The Stars have no choice but to hope that Kari is, or that he will be. And he might!

Actually, that's not true.  The Stars do have one other choice. And maybe that will be what pushes Lehtonen to that next level more than anything else.  That was the plan all along, right?

(All numbers from War-on-ice.com.)