First of all, let me be clear; I don’t think Kari Lehtonen is the reason the Dallas Stars plummeted out of a playoff spot. Several of us here at Defending Big D have already talked about why injuries and goaltending are not the best excuses for the Stars’ historic collapse. I also don’t think Mike McKenna is an upgrade over Lehtonen; after all, his career numbers pale in comparison to Lehtonen’s.
But when a team goes on an eight-game losing streak, the coaching staff should be doing everything they can to try and provide a spark to the players. That includes trying someone else in net, even if the current goaltender isn’t necessary the problem. It wouldn’t have even been the first time head coach Ken Hitchcock would have tried something like that.
By now you all know the story. Lehtonen was injured in Tuesday’s game against the San Jose Sharks, which led backup goaltender Mike McKenna to get his first slice of NHL action since February 16, 2015 with the Arizona Coyotes. The NHL journeyman stopped all 17 shots he faced as the Stars overcame a 2-0 deficit, giving McKenna his first NHL win since December 23, 2013 with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Sharks aren’t what you would call an “easy win” either; they currently sit at 98 points and good for fifth in the Western Conference and nineth in the NHL. They also sit at 11th in the league in goals scored with 245 on the season, so McKenna had to bring his “A game” to secure the win for the Stars.
Therefore, this recent performance begs the question - where was McKenna during the Stars’ losing streak?
Since March 5, where Ben Bishop was first injured in a game against the Ottawa Senators, the Dallas Stars have gone 3-8-2 with Lehtonen in net. The only game he didn’t play in was March 16 against the Senators, when Ben Bishop returned, albeit briefly.
This stretch also included a set of back-to-back games. Lehtonen allowed four goals in a loss to the Montreal Canadiens on March 13, then played the next night in Toronto where he allowed six goals in an overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Let’s say rather than playing Lehtonen again the night after a bad game, the Stars played a rested McKenna instead. Or gave McKenna the loss to Montreal and Lehtonen the start in Toronto. Either way, the Stars were able to score five goals against the Maple Leafs and were leading until Patrick Marleau tied it up with 16 seconds left in the third. A fresh goalie would have likely been the difference between an overtime loss and a regulation win.
Of course, that would give the Stars only a single extra point on the season. But look at it this way - currently the Dallas Stars have 90 points and 37 ROW (regulation/overtime wins), and sit directly behind the Colorado Avalanche (93) and the St. Louis Blues (92) in the standings. The Stars can only get a maximum of 94 points by the end of this season, and since they would lose a tiebreaker with both the Blues and Avalanche — the two teams play each other one more time, so at least one will hit 94 points or more — they mathematically can’t make the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But what if the Stars had 91 points and 38 ROW instead? Then they could get a maximum of 95 points, plus potentially win tiebreakers against both teams. That means that if the Stars won their last two games, they could have snuck into the playoffs if both the Blues and Avalanche were held to 95 points or less. And again, the two teams play each other before the season ends, so such a scenario isn’t even that outlandish.
Plus, this is all assuming the Stars just had one more point. Maybe if the team won that night in Toronto, they would have been revitalized, and gone on to win the next game against the Senators as well, instead of losing in overtime, picking up another point. Or, what if McKenna had played against the Boston Bruins after Lehtonen allowed eight goals in the two prior games? Could McKenna have played well enough to steal the game for the Stars and given the team another two points?
The thing is, the Stars will never know the answers to those questions, because they never gave McKenna the chance. Ever since Bishop first went down due to injury, the Stars decided to ride Lehtonen all the way unless Bishop came back. Even when the Stars were eliminated from the postseason, head coach Ken Hitchcock didn’t plan on playing McKenna in the final three games; he only got ice time in San Jose because Lehtonen was injured mid-game.
Again, I don’t believe McKenna would have been an upgrade over Lehtonen, nor do I think he would have gone on a hot streak and won several games for the Stars. But as Tuesday’s game against the Sharks showed, McKenna would have at least been good enough to possibly win a game or two for the Stars during their late season collapse.
This isn’t even a case of hindsight being 20/20. The Stars were on an eight-game losing streak, and thus should have been trying anything to squeeze out an extra victory, whether it was changing the defensive pairings, giving a player like Gemel Smith more ice time, or rotating McKenna in to start a game in place of Lehtonen.
So yes, McKenna might have earned the Dallas Stars just a single point if anything had he been given the chance to play during the losing streak. But given how few points separate Dallas from Colorado and St. Louis, a single point might have been all they needed.