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Netminder Kari Lehtonen off to sensational start for Thrashers

The reason for that is the man in net. Kari Lehtonen's sparkling 1.63 goals-against average and .943 save percentage has his team roaring out of the gates at 4-1-1.

"He has been outstanding," Thrashers GM Don Waddell said Wednesday.

He has to be, not only for the Thrashers to have any chance of making the playoffs, but also because it's time for him to live up to the hype. The second overall pick from the 2002 NHL entry draft and the highest-drafted European goalie ever taken, the 22-year-old Helsinki native was viewed by most as a sure-thing franchise goalie.

His coming-out party was supposed to be last season but he got injured in the first period of the very first game. Injuries limited him to only 38 games. His replacements in goal, Mike Dunham, Michael Garnett, Adam Berkhoel and Steve Shields, didn't get the job done as the Thrashers flirted with but ultimately failed to claim a playoff berth.

"It was hard for me and hard for the whole team," Lehtonen said from Atlanta. "It made me very mad to see the guys not happy and every day ask me when I was coming back and things like that. It was a hopeless situation because I couldn't help them at all. Everything went wrong.

"But the worst part is that this year everybody asks about it in interviews and I have to talk about it," he added. "Hopefully we can forget last year and focus on what's ahead."

In the meantime, Lehtonen had to sit back and watch Cam Ward lead the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup championship in the spring, the same Cam Ward that was taken 23 spots lower than Lehtonen in the '02 draft.

"He wants to be the best," Waddell said of his prized goalie. "He looks around the league and he knows if we're going to have success he has to be very good. So I don't think it's really about one guy (Ward) but rather Kari is driven to be one of the best guys in the league."

Lehtonen buckled down and committed the entire off-season to being better prepared.

"Last year he was as disappointed as anybody," said Waddell. "He proved that by spending his whole summer in Atlanta this year to get ready. He gave us the kind of summer that we needed. And I think that was a big step in his success so far this year."

The 6-4, 200-pound Lehtonen already has two shutouts under his belt in five starts. He had two shutouts all of last season.

"I just overall feel better," said Lehtonen, who battled groin and ankle injuries last year. "But it's still so early. It's hard to say where it's going to go but right now it looks pretty good."

The Thrashers, as Waddell points out, are also playing better in front of Lehtonen, eliminating many of the second chances that killed them last year. And for once, it was a normal training camp for Atlanta, which was key.

"There are no distractions this year," said Waddell. "Last year it was Kovalchuk holding out. And obviously going back there was the car accident (Dan Snyder's death in September 2003). We've always had something going on and this year there are no distractions. We can just go out and play."



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