Kari Lehtonen excited to return as Stars make push for playoffs

After being out of action for a little more than a week, Kari Lehtonen will be back in net for the Dallas Stars Thursday night and he thinks the timing is perfect.

“These are the exciting times,” said Lehtonen. “It’s warm outside, people come to the games and there is so much on the line every night. It’s fun to be a hockey player right now. I am going to do my best to help this team get the wins that we need.”

Lehtonen returns after suffering a groin injury in last Tuesday’s game against the Los Angeles Kings. He missed most of that game and then the next three. Lehtonen has been skating and practicing since late last week and said he is good to go.

“I feel good. I’ve had a couple of good days of practicing and I am excited to get back in there,” he said. “Games are different, so you never know if you are 100 percent. I am definitely good enough to play. That’s all that matters.”

Lehtonen could benefit from this recent time off. That Los Angeles game in which he was injured was his 19th consecutive start. The hope is Lehtonen will return refreshed.

“Obviously you never want to see somebody get hurt and be out, but the positive is that you get a little bit of a mental break,” said Stars goaltending coach Mike Valley. “Now, you kick in gear for six games and help your team get into the playoffs. You just get a bit of a fresh mentality. If you’ve played 23 straight games it’s a little different, especially in this schedule where you are playing almost every other night. I see that little mental break as a good thing for him.”

While Lehtonen was out of the lineup, backup Richard Bachman was stellar in relief, backstopping the Stars to three wins in four games and keeping the Stars right in the thick of things in the tight Western Conference playoff race.

“It was fun to see Bacher do well and help the guys out,” said Lehtonen. “He had a rougher time there in the beginning of the season, but it was nice to see him do well and show everybody that he is a pretty good goalie.”

But Lehtonen is the ace of the staff and his return is good timing for the Stars.

“He’s been very consistent all year. He’s won some games for us,” said Stars defenseman Stephane Robidas. “Bachs did great for us, but Kari is healthy and he’s been our best player most of the nights. I would say he’s been our MVP. It makes us confident to play in front of a guy like that.”

And for Lehtonen to be in MVP form he’ll need to try not to do too much, even though he is returning in a revved up playoff race.

“I’ll try to keep it simple and be relaxed,” Lehtonen said. “I’ll try not to think about who we are playing or what the score is and just try to do my job. That usually works out the best.”

“When he is letting the game come to him and he’s playing a controlled game, then he dominates,” said Valley. “That is his strength, being big and making it look easy. Sometimes when he gets moving too much that’s when he starts chasing the game a little bit. Then we have to reel him in.”

The Stars are trying to reel in their first trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2008. Heading into Thursday’s games they are four points out of the final playoff spot, but still control their own destiny since they have two games in hand on eighth-place Columbus and hold the regulation/overtime wins tiebreaker.

With less than two weeks left in the playoff race, these are exciting times. They are pressure-packed, too. Lehtonen said that’s life in the NHL, and that if the Stars keep doing what they’ve done over the past couple weeks, they’ll be OK.

“There is always pressure when you are playing at this level. You are expected to play well every night,” Lehtonen said. “It’s nice that we have a team that can beat anybody. We just have to stick together, work hard, get a couple bounces here and there, and I think we can do well.”

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