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."
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."