Kari Lehtonen seizing the reins in goal for Stars


Kari Lehtonen seizing the reins in goal for Stars

Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi?

That was the question heading into the 2015-16 season for the Stars. The early answer was both.

It was supposed to be a rotation, but Lehtonen has taken the reins and has earned the bulk of the starts as the Stars enter the stretch run.

Coming off a 27-save shutout against the New York Islanders over the weekend, Lehtonen followed that up by coming up big in a 6-2 win over the Blackhawks on Tuesday night at the United Center.

He stopped 30 of 32 shots in the win and has now won three games in a row, as well as four of his last five outings, helping the Stars become the second team in the Western Conference to clinch a playoff berth. The Los Angeles Kings clinched over the weekend.

"I think everybody realizes that your goaltender has to make some important saves for you in a game. I think our guy did that for us,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said after the game. “We had their guy get off to a little bit of a rough start which we got some momentum off of that."

[MORE: Stars secure playoff berth, but it's only Step 1]

Until the Blackhawks potted their first goal of the game at the 16:23 mark in the second period, Lehtonen hadn’t been scored on in 100:04 minutes.

That’s a big confidence boost for a team without its second leading scorer, Tyler Seguin — who’s out three-to-four weeks after suffering an Achilles injury last Thursday.

The play of his team in front of him, however, is the reason Lehtonen’s confidence level is high right now.

"It's good. I think we're playing well as a team,” said Lehtonen. “Couple big wins here the last two games, so it's exciting right now this time of year. We just need to keep it up."

Statistically, Lehtonen had one of the worst seasons of his career last year.

It reached a point that the Stars acquired the rights of Niemi in the offseason and signed him to a three-year, $13.5 million deal, committing almost 15 percent of their salary to goaltending.

Lehtonen ($5.9 million) and Niemi ($4.5 million) have a combined cap hit of $10.4 million. That’s a lot for two goaltenders, but it’s also no secret how important goaltending can be in the playoffs.

"It's huge,” Stars captain Jamie Benn said. “Both our goalies have been playing great this year, and it's nice to see that (Lehtonen) is stepping up right now and playing some pretty good hockey back there. He made some big saves at some key times in this game; he looked sharp."

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The Blackhawks have certainly gotten a taste of that. This season against Chicago, the Dallas netminder is 3-0.

In those games, the Stars have outscored the Blackhawks, 15-6.

While it hasn’t quite been that case all season long, Lehtonen is stepping up during important games, against Central Division opponents.

And they’re going to need him for the final eight games of the regular season and the playoffs if they’re serious about winning the Stanley Cup.

“I know we have a great team and we can beat anybody, so that makes me more comfortable (in net),” said Lehtonen. “It doesn't change my job. I need to make the saves and go from there."

Blackhawks edge out Senators in shootout: 'It was really nice to get a win'

Blackhawks edge out Senators in shootout: 'It was really nice to get a win'

It was a rare sight to see the Blackhawks in a shootout on Wednesday night.

It was just the second time this season — and first time at the United Center — that the Blackhawks made it past 3-on-3 overtime. 

The last came on Dec. 2, 2017, a 3-2 shootout loss to the Stars in Dallas. On Wednesday night, the Blackhawks were on the other end, beating the Ottawa Senators 3-2 in a seven-round shootout. Nick Schmaltz netted the game-winner.

"We'll take it," coach Joel Quenneville said. "I thought we had a decent game tonight. Overtime not so good, I liked the shootout victory, Fors made some big saves for us particularly as the game got deeper. Our third was OK, I thought our first two were way better, and overtime we gave up some high quality, some bells were rings for a bit there. But it was nice to see the shootout win."

Patrick Kane had a goal and an assist, recording another multi-point game, his 16th of the season.

"I mean we need every point we can get at this point," Kane said. "There's still belief in this locker room. Obviously we need to go on quite a run and have a big record here down the stretch. But take it a game at a time and nice to get two points."

Anton Forsberg was a big reason the Blackhawks even recorded those two points. The 25-year-old netminder stopped 34 of 36 shots and made a handful of big saves down the stretch.

"It was really nice to get a win for sure," Forsberg said. "I would love to have a lot more wins, but right now just gotta look forward and get as many wins as possible."

Added Quenneville: "I think it was good for him to win a game the way he did. Lot of shots were on the line, as we progressed, got deeper, hitting the point first was big for him and for us and then finding a way to get the extra one was a good win."

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Ottawa Senators tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Trade chips.

The Blackhawks have reached the point in their season where they have no choice but to become sellers before the Feb. 26 deadline, and we saw that when they traded Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals on Monday for a conditional third-round pick in 2018. Tommy Wingels could also be an attractive piece for a team looking to fill out their depth.

The Senators will definitely be sellers, and wow do they have some names potentially on the market that can fetch large returns: Derrick Brassard and Mike Hoffman are two players who log top-six minutes on a nightly basis and also have term left on their contract, which is great for teams looking to load up for this year and beyond.

The biggest name to watch, probably in the league altogether, is Erik Karlsson, who could be on the move if a team offers a big enough package for the Senators to pull the trigger now as opposed to in the offseason if they feel him re-signing is a long shot. He was the best defenseman last season, and if a team steps up to get him, they're getting two possible postseason runs out of him.

2. Artem Anisimov's experiment at left wing not working.

Joel Quenneville has tried rekindling the magic between Anisimov, Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane as of late, only this time Anisimov is playing the wing and it just hasn't been very effective. The trio was on the ice for each of the two 5-on-5 goals the Kings scored on Monday, and Anisimov completely lost his man on the first one.

It's important to establish a consistent left winger for Schmaltz and Kane, and maybe putting Alex DeBrincat up there is something you consider going forward as part of a long-term solution. Move Anisimov back down as the third-line center to play in more of a defensive role and continue using his big body on power plays for his offensive abilities might be the best bet.

3. Win the special teams battle.

In their last meeting against Ottawa on Jan. 9, the Blackhawks went 4-for-6 on the power play and 4-on-4 on the penalty kill in an 8-2 win. And those are two areas to look out for again.

The Senators own the 28th-ranked power play with a 16.1 percent success rate and 29th-ranked penalty kill with a 74.5 percent success rate. Get ready for another offensive outburst?