How many times in the last 24 months have Dallas Stars' fans said to themselves, "If they only had average goaltending"?
The point has been belabored since last season's dreadful start to the year. The Stars score plenty. The Stars typically dominate or at least win the possession battle, but they lose more than those stats would infer. Of course that is a sweeping generalization that is hard to apply to any one game in particular, but it has lingered in the back of fans' heads for awhile now.
Last offseason Jim Nill went out and got Antti Niemi in order to (1) push Kari Lehtonen, (2) rest Kari Lehtonen, and (3) have two solid goaltenders. The Stars had tried for years to shop for a backup goaltender at the bargain bin, and the results had been less than inspiring. It was time to make a change.
The addition was billed as a "1A" and "1B" instead of a true starter to backup relationship seen on most NHL teams. For the most part, that has been the case with Niemi getting 38 starts to Lehtonen's 29. Both players have come on in relief for the other four times during particularly poor starts.
The numbers tell a very strange story. By that I mean, there is very little distinguishable difference between the two in the statistical department. Lehtonen has the better save percentage at 0.907 to Niemi's 0.902, but Niemi has a better goals against average of about a tenth of a goal per game. There is very little separating these two.
In many respects, regardless of the fact that this year has been an improvement in goal from last year, the Dallas get below average goaltending every night. The league average save percentage is 0.916, and the Stars' team save percentage is 0.905. Call it a lack of consistent defensive effort/execution in front of them, call it bad luck, call it father time. The Stars' get below average work in the crease and that has remained the case despite the addition of Niemi.
There are always things that can be done to put band-aids on poor play in net. But with 67 of 82 games in the books, the hay is in the barn. These are the guys in masks that are going to carry this team into the playoffs. It really is that simple.
Given the relatively even dispersion of starts between the two Finns, I had come to accept the fact that the Stars are a two-goalie team. That is, until the post game show after the game against Ottawa got me thinking.
If the playoffs started on Thursday, and the Stars were lining up to open their series against the St. Louis Blues, who would start Game 1?
If the season ended today, it would have to be Lehtonen. But if Lehtonen gets shelled 2 games in a row, maybe it has to be Niemi. I went back and forth with myself for hours over which guy I would want in the crease for Game 1. Both have won games for this team and lost them. Both have gotten hot for weeks at a time and then come crashing back to earth. The truth is, I found myself thinking about things differently the longer I examined them.
Maybe it doesn't matter who starts. Maybe all of the intangible discussions about who is "mentally tough" and who has "been there" is all a bunch of hogwash. What if the answer really is an simple as playing the guy that is hot?
Part of me has been conditioned to think that the good teams always have one goalie. Jean-Sebastian Giguere, Martin Brodeur, Ed Belfour, Jonathan Quick, Roberto Luongo, and King Henrik all carried their teams to deep runs in the playoffs without help. But that is a pretty big list of names. Can we really expect either Niemi or Lehtonen to suddenly turn into a horse in the crease as soon as the lights turn on? Of course not.
It is a new way of thinking about the position, having a true 1A and 1B. It flies in the face of everything we have been hearing about the position for decades. The salary cap ramifications alone are worth raising an eyebrow over.
Think back to last season. The Blackhawks faced the Nashville Predators in the first round, and Corey Crawford was terrible. The Hawks started backup Scott Darling for a few games, and the Hawks were able to overcome a depleted Preds team. When Crawford came back in the net, he never gave it up again carrying the team to another sickening Stanley Cup.
While the situation was different, it showed fans a miniature preview of what it could be like carrying two true starters on a roster. If one has a rough game, the other one gets a turn. It is maddening.
Never the less, the Stars are close to having to pull the trigger on a Game 1 starter. Is it Lehtonen, or is it Niemi? Does it matter?