11 February 2008

Givin' Kari some sugar

Nice article by Craig over on AJC, about my favourite goalie!

Kari Lehtonen is starting to live up to his potential, and at the perfect time

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 02/11/08

He'd just made 27 saves and single-handedly kept the Thrashers in a game they probably shouldn't have won. On Saturday night, after beating the Lightning, Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen was unhooking his goalie equipment when somebody suggested to him that he had just played one of his better games in a long time.

He looked up and smiled. You haven't been around much lately, he suggested.

As impressive as his performance was against the Lightning, it was just the latest in a string of strong starts for the 24-year-old goalie.

His overall numbers this season aren't impressive, but they're improving. He has more losses than wins (12-14). His goals-against average (2.75) doesn't crack the top 30 for NHL goalies. His save percentage is 15th best in the league.

Not bad, but not great.

Kari Lehtonen needs to be great.

The Thrashers' success and improvement this season depended on growth from young cornerstone players like Lehtonen and forward Ilya Kovalchuk.

Kovalchuk has delivered.

Lehtonen? Things haven't gone as smoothly.

There was his 0-4 start before he injured his groin. And while the Thrashers climbed back in the hunt in October and November, it was largely behind the strong play of backup goalie Johan Hedberg and rookie goalie Ondrej Pavelec.

But with 24 games left, Lehtonen can completely bury his frustrating first half and, as a restricted free agent following this season, he can also cement his status as the Thrashers' franchise goalie.

"I want to stay here; that's my No. 1 thing," Lehtonen said. "I just have to play well and earn my spot here so that the owners and management believe I can help this team. That's my No. 1 goal."

If the Thrashers emerge from the pack and make the playoffs, it'll likely be because Lehtonen rises to his oft-discussed potential and talent level.

More than any other player, Lehtonen can be the one to propel such a push.

"No doubt," Thrashers coach and GM Don Waddell said. "I think it's already started."

Since the All-Star break, Lehtonen is 3-2 with a 1.41 goals-against average and a save percentage of .956.

That's the kind of stretch the team envisioned when Lehtonen was chosen with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 draft, the highest a European goalie had ever been selected.

But even during this hot stretch, he's barely over .500. After breaking a franchise record for wins a year ago, Lehtonen has been under .500 all season.

"The wins, that one is harder to explain," Waddell said.

"I think in the last month, I've been playing the way I want to and the way I'm expecting to," Lehtonen said. "It's been getting my numbers up, but not really in the most important area, the W section. It's very frustrating."

If you look at his two losses since the break, games in which Lehtonen played well for the most part, there were still lapses from the young goalie.

Philadelphia's Mike Richards scored four seconds into a power play on a long shot Lehtonen admitted later he wasn't ready for.

Against Vancouver, Alex Burrows scored the game-winner when Lehtonen was slow to get up after a teammate hit him near the neck with a stick.

In one-goal games, and in a playoff race, those lapses are magnified.

But so are the wins.

On Saturday night, Waddell answered post-game questions about Alexei Zhitnik, who scored the game-winner, and Marian Hossa, whose goal tied the game.

But give credit where it's due, Waddell said, singling out his young goalie.

"Kari is in a zone right now," he said. "We talked about a guy who needs to step up —- he's doing that for us right now."

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