Maybe Kari Lehtonen was tired of hearing about St. Louis goalie Brian Elliott. Maybe a Dallas goalie was just due for a big performance. Maybe this series just had to go the distance because the Central Division is too good for anything less.
Whatever the source of this unexpected turn, Lehtonen could not have picked a better day to up his postseason game to an elite level.
Lehtonen stopped 35 of 37 shots in his heaviest workload of the postseason, backstopping Dallas to a critical 3-2 win in Game 6 of its second-round playoff series at St. Louis’ Scottrade Center.
Dallas had just seven shots over the final two periods of the game and at times, it felt like the Stars would never clear their zone against the withering Blues forecheck. Thanks to a rare off night from St. Louis goalie Brian Elliott, and a game-changing performance from Lehtonen, they had enough to force a Game 7 on home ice on Wednesday.
“Kari was our MVP tonight,” Dallas center Jason Spezza told reporters in St. Louis. “That’s what you need when you get up like that.”
Elliott, the guy I anointed as the leading Conn Smythe Trophy candidate just two days ago, was pulled in the first period after allowing three goals on seven shots — goals that were largely the product of poor St. Louis defensive play.
It was a stunning and unexpected turn for the Blues. Elliott had posted a .937 save percentage through the first five games of the series, picking up right where he had left off in a brilliant performance against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the first round.
“We were shocked,” St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock told reporters in St. louis. “Two shots, two goals.”
With a 3-0 lead and his erstwhile nemesis giving way to Jake Allen, Lehtonen took over.
Lehtonen’s legs were a wonder on Monday. He robbed half the Blues roster with ridiculous pad saves, including a big stop on Paul Stastny and back-to-back saves on Vladimir Tarasenko in the second period. He saved his best save for St. Louis wing Jaden Schwartz, however, with 23.8 seconds remaining and Dallas clinging to a 3-2 lead.
Blues captain David Backes had the puck behind the net and Schwartz crashed the slot to take a perfect feed for a one-timer while the Stars defense was caught puck watching. Fortunately for them, Lehtonen was there, flashing the left pad to preserve the lead.
“When you score goals early, it changes the game a lot,” Lehtonen said modestly and accurately. “I knew they were going to come after us. It wasn’t always pretty at our end, but it was enough.”
Goaltending was considered the Stars’ Achilles heel entering this postseason. Lehtonen and Antti Niemi posted pedestrian numbers during the regular season and Lehtonen has been up and down this postseason.
Home ice hasn’t meant much in this series, with each team going 1-2 in its own building, so it’s difficult to predict what is ahead at American Airlines Center. For one night at least, Lehtonen managed to turn the tables on his counterpart and emerge as the game’s shining star.
“You can just flip the script,” Dallas coach Lindy Ruff said. “Last game, Elliott made six or seven great saves for them. Just flip the name to Lehtonen tonight.”
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