Dallas Stars Observations: Special Effort from Kari Lehtonen Helps Snap Skid; Can Team Build On It?
The Stars goaltender gave his team the special sort of effort they've been needing to snap this losing skid.
Most of the time, the three stars of an NHL game are selected a bit before the game actually ends, the official ballot signed and delivered to the PA announcer for reading soon after the final buzzer.
I can only assume that's what happened Tuesday at Gila River Arena. Because from my seat in the cozy confines of section 213, there's no way Kari Lehtonen shouldn't have been among them.
There are a lot of ways to get yourself into a losing streak as a team. The offense can go cold, the defense can go south or a series of bad hops can leave everyone clutching their sticks a little too tight. But there's usually a common theme to getting out of a losing streak, especially a long one - someone puts the team on his back and refuses to let them lose.
Tyler Seguin tried his damnedest to do that last weekend against the San Jose Sharks, and he played a huge role in Tuesday's eventual 4-3 victory over the Arizona Coyotes. But that one person who stepped up and said "This is not happening again," was Lehtonen.
That's not to say he played a perfect game. As good as Joe Vitale's shot was in the second period and as fast as that play turned into a 2-on-1, most goalies will tell you they should be able to stop an unscreened shot from the circles. But he was the one who made the definitive plays when it mattered.
Take that late power play, before Ryan Garbutt escaped up the right side. The Coyotes got not one but two brilliant chances off the faceoff, where Lehtonen made a reflex save on a tip in front then scrambled to his left to take an open net away from Mikael Boedker. The Coyotes fan sitting next to me was duly impressed and said, paraphrased a bit for heat-of-the-moment profanity, "What a (redacted) brilliant save. I don't even care they didn't score because that was such a great save."
That was what the Stars needed, what they have needed for the past several games - a player to make that play at that time.
Because when that happened, those snowballs that had been rolling against the Stars for a few weeks now suddenly headed the other way. Vernon Fiddler made a key block to end that series of Coyotes changes. After a line change, Garbutt got on and got loose up the boards for the winning goal. The entire team clamored into the crease in the power play's dying moments to make sure there was no way that puck was still loose.
And finally, after all that time, the entire team could finally exhale.
There were other very positive signs for the Stars as well. For the first time in a bit, they handled adversity well, whether that was an incredibly poor start, a two-man conga line to the box between Trevor Daley and Jamie Benn, or giving up a tying goal with less than four minutes left in the game. I would argue that all stemmed from Lehtonen, who kept them in it early when they were still sorting things out and didn't let down late when they started to push.
Handling that bad start was key. Lindy Ruff said the team came out tense, something you could see from Benn's early fight and the general penalty issues. The only one who didn't look out of sorts was young John Klingberg, who hasn't been a part of this skid and came across as generally unflappable.
So is this the type of win the Stars can build on, or is it one guy standing on his head? While Lehtonen certainly did that in stretches this game, the fact that his teammates were finally able to build off that effort is certainly a good sign. There are plenty of things to clean up (such as clean zone exits under pressure from all the defensemen), but you could feel the emotional release from the team in the building after Erik Cole's goal, after Garbutt's goal and as the horn sounded. Lehtonen even threw in a little fist pump for good measure.
Because here's the thing about losing streaks - they are as much a mental game as a physical one. After three or four bad games in a row, every decision seems that much faster, every second in your zone that much longer. You're no longer playing just one period of one game - you're playing period 20 of 21 with all the previous failures weighing on you. Winning allows you to finally wipe that mental slate clean.
The same can be set for individuals in slumps. Ales Hemsky had some brilliant looking rushes early but has reached the point of deferring on the shot to a bit of an absurd degree. Jamie Benn is fighting the puck, with it sliding off his stick as he tries to slip a backhand 5-hole. Eventually, because all streaks end (as even Craig Ludwig's goalless drought once did), they'll reach the same point where they can just wipe it all away.
For now, after an ulcer-inducing night in the desert though, Lehtonen's efforts will allow the rest of his teammates to take that big mental breath. The schedule stays ridiculously tough for another week yet, so the opponents won't get any easier to handle.
But with a win finally under their belts in November, and hopefully with Lehtonen rounding into form, each game can be taken as a clean slate again and not crack under the weight of previous nights.