20 February 2008

Lehtonen is Thrashers’ saving grace

By Jeff Schultz | Wednesday, February 20, 2008, 07:41 PM
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Kari Lehtonen has faced 90 shots in his past two starts, 248 in his past seven and way too many this season for a team with a general tendency to keep its goalie just this side of extensive therapy and, maybe, a drool bucket.

But there is an upside to all of this. Lehtonen has not only survived, he has thrived, faculties and most major organs intact. If Ilya Kovalchuk has largely carried the Thrashers on the front side of the red line, Lehtonen is holding things together on the backside, even if “NHL Playoff Contenders For Dummies,” would suggest this probably isn’t the way to do things.

Sometimes, even flawed building projects can hang by a thread. It’s that blind squirrel/acorn thing.

“This year, certainly, the games have been tougher for the goalie than last year,” Lehtonen said. “We’ve been giving up more scoring chances. We were a lot better overall with our defensive game last year. That’s something I hope we can still turn around because you really need that in the playoffs, or just getting there.”

Getting there is going to be a problem. The Thrashers are approaching the trade deadline more famously as probable sellers (Marian Hossa) than buyers. Their erratic tendencies can best be summarized by their past two outings: a 4-3 shootout win in New Jersey, followed by a 4-1 loss to the New York Islanders, during which they were outshot 49-10.

The Islanders game set two team records and tied two others for shot infamy. If this franchise should be anywhere by now in its evolution, it’s past the point of establishing new lows. (The 39-shot differential in the Islanders game broke the mark of 27 set in a 1999 game, the expansion season.)

But there is this: They found a goalie.

Lehtonen has started to turn the corner in maturity, durability and certainly consistency. Going into tonight’s game at Carolina, he has allowed only 10 goals on 248 shots (.960 saves percentage) in his past seven starts. He has had really only one bad outing in the past six weeks.

The team’s play in front of Lehtonen (and backup Johan Hedberg) generally has been awful. The Thrashers are allowing a league-high 33-plus shots per game, and have outshot opponents in only eight of 61 games. Lehtonen isn’t a goalie so much as he is a rotating duck in a shooting gallery.

It’s so bad at times that defenseman Niclas Havelid admits, “Kari gives us some of those special Finnish words sometimes.”

Remarkably, he has remained sane, the result of increased patience and confidence.

“I guess that’s why it’s been easier for me to live in this roller coaster this season,” he said, “because as a goalie I feel I’ve been doing a pretty good job. But I know it’s only going to get tougher, and I really need to play at this level the rest of the year if we want to go somewhere.”

He is their only real hope. The roster has holes. If the team has a system under the temp. coach Don Waddell, it’s not working.

The effort is uneven — and players only seem to wake up after associate coach Brad McCrimmon plays bad cop and yells at them between periods.

Twenty-one games to go, and this is where the Thrashers are: Barely over .500 (29-28-4), at least as the NHL defines over .500. But look deeper. Their record is only that healthy because of a league-best record of 14-4 in relative gimmick hockey: 4-on-4 overtimes and shootouts (which are like deciding football games with field goal contests).

In regulation-time games, the Thrashers have the second-worst record in the NHL. They are only 15-28 in those games, just one win ahead of Edmonton (14-29). Goaltending becomes an even bigger factor than usual in overtimes (when more open ice creates more scoring chances) and shootouts (when it’s one-on-one).

In short, their margin for error is slim.

“When you have a goalie who can play the way Kari’s playing, you know he can steal games for you,” said Mark Recchi.

It’s not where the team wants to be. But it’s where they need their goalie.

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