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."

10 years with 'Coach Q' anything but ordinary

10 years with 'Coach Q' anything but ordinary

Over the last 10 years, the words “ordinary” and "OK" have taken on a new meaning to Blackhawks players and fans alike. 

That’s “Coach Q” speak. 

A language where “ordinary” means awful and “just OK” means you were a non-factor. The good news is the last 10 seasons under Joel Quenneville have been anything but ordinary at the United Center. 

On Oct. 16th, 2008, the Blackhawks let go of fan-favorite Denis Savard after a 1-2-1 start to the season and named Quenneville as head coach in his place. Quenneville coached the Colorado Avalanche the previous season, but after another disappointing exit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the two mutually parted ways. He had originally planned to stay away from the bench for at least a season, but the Blackhawks triumvirate of Rocky Wirtz, John McDonough and then-GM Dale Tallon brought Quenneville on as a scout and then handed him the keys to the car shortly after.

“Dale’s obligation is to put together a winning team,” said McDonough at Quenneville’s introductory press conference. “At this point, Joel is the coach of that team.”

It was an emotional day at the Blackhawks offices. Savard – a Blackhawks legend on the ice and a coach the players held in high regard – was let go just as things started to turn upwards for the organization. The end of the 2007-2008 season saw the Blackhawks once again miss out on the playoffs, but the fans began to flock to the United Center once more, and the hype train around the young team built around Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane was gaining steam.

“Moving forward, if we want to be a championship-caliber organization, we have to make tough decisions,” said Tallon. “This was the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make.” 

Savard was 65-66-16 in parts of three seasons as head coach of the Blackhawks. Meanwhile, Quenneville had compiled eight 95+ point seasons behind the bench for the Blues and Avalanche in his 11 years as a head coach.

“We felt the experience and the track record of Joel would be a balance that we needed with a young, inexperienced team,” said Tallon. "Joel brings us a wealth of experience and a winning track record that will have an immediate and lasting impact."

The gamble paid off for the Blackhawks in a major way. Once Quenneville took over, the team got to the sought-after next level. 

They finished the 08-09 season with 104 points, third-most in the NHL’s Western Conference, had a franchise-record setting 9-game win streak in the month of December and returned to the playoffs for the first time since the 2001-2002 season. The “young and inexperienced” Blackhawks took the league by storm, dropping the Calgary Flames in the first round of the playoffs in six games before taking down the rival Canucks in the next round.

They ultimately lost out to the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Finals, but the bar was now set for the organization. From then on, the Blackhawks were Stanley Cup contenders. 

Quenneville currently ranks 2nd in franchise history with 449 wins, trailing only Billy Reay’s 516. 

But most importantly, Quenneville’s 76 playoff wins rank at the top in the organization’s long and storied history, and those three Stanley Cups that he’s raised over his head were anything but “ordinary.”  

Anton Forsberg on uncertain future with Blackhawks as Corey Crawford nears return


Anton Forsberg on uncertain future with Blackhawks as Corey Crawford nears return

The Blackhawks are preparing for Corey Crawford to make his season debut this week after recovering from a concussion since Dec. 23, 2017, when he last made his appearance between the pipes.

That means a decision has to be made on Anton Forsberg, who's serving as the backup to Cam Ward but ranks third on the organizational depth chart in goal with a healthy Crawford. The challenging part of the situation is that Forsberg requires waivers if the Blackhawks want to try sending him down to the American Hockey League and keep him within the organization. But it's beyond his control.

"I have no idea and I don't want to think that way either,” Forsberg told NBC Sports Chicago. “I just want to be focused on getting better every day and try to work hard and put in the work, so hopefully when [my chance] comes, I've done everything I can.”

There are several layers to this, mostly questions: Can the Blackhawks find a trade partner for Forsberg? Would he clear waivers if he's put on there? And if he does, what happens to Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen, both of whom the Blackhawks are looking to take next steps in their development?

One thing is for certain: The Blackhawks do not plan on carrying three goaltenders. But maybe that’s an option for the short term until they see how Crawford handles the load since they have a six games in nine days stretch starting on Thursday.

“Organizationally, he’s one of our group of goaltenders,” coach Joel Quenneville said of Forsberg. “That’s where it’s at. We know the importance of depth in that area is always going to get challenged over the course of a season and we know the importance of the position. We’ll see how that plays out.”

In any profession, it's hard not to think about your future when there's uncertainty regarding your position. But Forsberg is trying to block all that out, no matter how difficult it may be.

"Sometimes it is, but at the same time it's the life of hockey,” he said. “Everybody has been, at some point, in their career probably in that situation. At the end of the day, it's always about yourself and how you can get better and all that. So that's what I'm trying to do.

"I try to come in here every day with a smile on my face. Hockey is the best thing in the world, so I just try to come in here and have fun and do my job. That's it."

If Crawford is ready to return on Thursday, that probably means Forsberg will be placed on waivers Wednesday. If he does get claimed, Forsberg must be on the NHL roster for at least 10 games and/or 30 days before being eligible to go through the waiver process again. So he cannot be stashed in the minors if claimed by another team.

That means his fate really depends on whether an NHL team is in need of an everyday backup goaltender.

"I really have no idea,” Forsberg said of whether or not he believes he would get through waivers. “It all depends on the situations and other teams, where other teams like me, I don't know. I don't want to focus on it. I just want to do my best right now to be prepared for whatever happens."