30 November 2007

Lehtonen's return to Wolves successful (and video highlights!)

by Scott J. Powers, Daily Herald correspondent

Chicago Wolves coach John Anderson opened the locker-room door after Tuesday's morning skate and found Kari Lehtonen with his equipment off and wearing a Georgia Tech hat.

The goalie had left the ice 10 minutes before anyone else, and the coach couldn't pass up the opportunity to send him a friendly message.

"Hey, hey, you didn't want to listen to my Vince Lombardi talk out there or what?" said Anderson while walking to his office. "Have you heard too many of them already? Oh my goodness."

"I guess I forget how the pregame skate goes," said Lehtonen with Anderson out of earshot. "I left a little too early."

With Lehtonen more than two years removed from last playing with the Wolves, that's understandable.

Anderson can live with Lehtonen, the Atlanta Thrashers top goalie, skipping out on his motivational speeches as long as the former No. 2 overall draft pick performs like he did Tuesday.

In his first game back from a groin injury suffered Oct. 18, Lehtonen proved that he's still more than capable of stopping the puck. In his first of possibly five rehab games, Lehtonen saved 27 of 28 shots, with the Quad City Flames only scoring with 9.8 seconds left in the game.

Lehtonen was tested in every imaginable way with a breakaway, a 3-on-1 chance, near and far slap shots, rebounds and numerous power plays. Each time -- except for the last -- he was in control.

"It was like he saw everything a moment before it happened," Anderson said.

There were some nerves for Lehtonen coming into the game. He knew everyone was looking for him to be this almighty NHL goalie playing at the AHL level.

"Today, everyone expected for me to come out and be great," said the 24-year-old. "That's good for me to have that kind of pressure. That's very good."

Atlanta general manager and interim coach Don Waddell was glad to see it as well. With the Thrashers having a few days off, Waddell made the trip to the Allstate Arena to see his goalie.

"I'm glad that he said he felt some pressure," Waddell said. "That means he rose to that pressure. I like the way he played."

Lehtonen last played with the Wolves during the NHL strike season in 2004-2005. With a 2.27 goals-against average, he helped them to the Calder Cup Finals, where they were swept by Philadelphia.

Aside from the cold weather, Lehtonen was happy to return.

"I had a couple great years here that helped me be better as a goalie," said Lehtonen, who looked forward to having some Chicago Italian food. "I had a great time when I played here four years ago. It's good to be back.

"I really like the city. Lots of things to do. You can't get bored. I've wanted to come back here many times in the last couple years, but not having the time.

"It's a beautiful city. (The weather's) the one thing better over (in Atlanta). Other than that, I like it here. The weather doesn't bother me that much. I'm from Finland. It's cold there, too." (Thanks for the tip, Captain Obvious -- Maal)

With Waddell saying after Tuesday's game that he would open up the Thrashers' coaching position again next season and calling Anderson "absolutely" a candidate, Lehtonen wouldn't mind hearing Anderson's motivational speeches sometime in the future in Atlanta.

"He's been always great for me," Lehtonen said. "I think it would great for him and great for me also if he got the job. It's not my job. My job is to be a goalie." (Our goalie's really embracing the captaincy mentioned above, eh? Don't trip over your cape, hero -- Maal)

Thrash lost 4-2 (beauty goal by Ilya for his 20th, though) and Wolves won 4-3 in OT last night, which included a hat-trick by Brett Sterling, his fourth in his professional career, the last goal being the GWG with 0:28.4 left before the shootout. Kari stopped 30 of 33.

Thank you to the Chicago Wolves for the video.
Please don't sue me.

And look, not to pat myself on the back, but I predicted on Craig's blog that Kari would be back in time for the game v the Isles on the 2nd. I might be god damned RIGHT! HAH! From the AJC:

If it's a spark the Thrashers need in order to regain the form that got them back into the playoff hunt, they might get it as soon as this weekend.

After the game, Waddell acknowledged that he might consider bringing Kari Lehtonen back from his conditioning stint in the AHL a little sooner than planned.

When Lehtonen was sent to Chicago, Waddell said the plan called for him to play three or four games before he returned to the Thrashers. But after a near shutout in his first game with the Wolves on Tuesday and an overtime win Thursday night in which he made 30 saves, Lehtonen might be ready to return from his groin injury.

"There's a chance of that," Waddell said. "We'll see how it goes for him tonight, see how it feels conditioning-wise, game-wise. Definitely, there's a possibility we might see him this weekend."

Happy dance!

Note from Maal: I will now have more time to concentrate on the blog. Sorry for slacking lately - had to finish up my novel for the NaNoWriMo contest. And I am a big WINNER! Now my focus will be back to hockey.

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