Barring an unexpectedly strong run of play by either Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi, it was a virtual certainty that the Dallas Stars would at the very least use both goaltenders at some point during the playoffs. In Round One, it took three games for Lehtonen to relinquish the starting duties to Niemi, but Round Two might see Niemi slide into the starting job after only two games.
In Game 2 of the second-round series between the Stars and St. Louis Blues, Lehtonen was chased from the net after 20 minutes of action. The Blues put five shots on Lehtonen in the first frame. Three of them found the back of the net. First it was Patrik Berglund hammering a slapshot past Lehtonen’s glove. Then Joel Edmunson snuck in from the blueline to put the Blues ahead. Finally, Troy Brouwer scored a power play goal and Lehtonen’s outing was over less than two minutes later.
“It really wasn’t [Lehtonen’s] night,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said post-game. “I felt that he was off and just decided to go with Antti (in the second period).”
But Ruff’s goaltending switch after one frame begs the question: which netminder gets the call in Game 3 with the Stars on the road and facing the possibility of trailing in a series for the first time this post-season?
Ruff said he needed time to think about who he would go with for Game 3, adding that he needed time to “take some time” to “digest the game.” On the five shots Lehtonen faced, he was beaten three times. Niemi, on the other hand, stopped 19 of the 20 pucks that came his way over the course of the next 51 minutes of action, but gave up his lone goal on a rebound attempt by David Backes in overtime.
“I thought he made some good saves,” Ruff said of Niemi's relief appearance. “I don’t think he had any action in the third at all. He made a couple saves in overtime on that first power play, so my initial thought is that I thought he was pretty good.”
It’s a tricky situation for Ruff and the Stars to be in during such an important time in the season, though, and his goaltenders aren’t making it any easier on him. Entering the post-season, the two goaltenders had nearly identical numbers, with Niemi boasting a 2.67 goals-against average and .905 save percentage and Lehtonen countering with a 2.76 GAA and .906 SP. And while Lehtonen’s 2.45 GAA and .906 SP in the playoffs is far better than Niemi’s 2.73 GAA and .892 SP, regular season 5-on-5 stats showed Niemi was the more steady of the two goaltenders.
Per Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com, of the 36 netminders to play at least 1,500 minutes at 5-on-5 during the regular season, Lehtonen was last with a .909 SP. Niemi finished 23rd with a .924 SP. That said, it’s been completely different thus far in the playoffs. The sample size for both netminders is far too small to draw any grand conclusion, but, via Corisca, Niemi’s 5-on-5 SP in the post-season is .889 to Lehtonen’s .933. Lehtonen has played almost 100 additional minutes at 5-on-5, but that still doesn’t make up for the disparity in SPs between the two netminders.
Statistically, that may seem like a lot to digest, but the numbers spell out that Lehtonen has been the more effective of the two goaltenders in the playoffs. That said, neither has stood out as a clear No. 1 and either could realistically steal a game for the Stars. It’s up to Ruff, however, to decide which of his two goaltenders will get the call in Game 3.
“It’s the same as we’ve done all year,” Ruff said. “Whether we go and let Kari bounce back…There just seems to come a point sometimes where Kari needs a rest and plays well after that. We’ll make that decision sometime tomorrow.”