09 December 2008

Kari's back!

Lehtonen ready to stand in goalBy MIKE KNOBLER
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Monday, December 08, 2008

You can usually tell how a goalie is doing by looking behind him. If you keep finding a puck in the net, he’s not having a good day.

But if you were looking at the back of the net at Thrashers practice on Monday, you were looking in the wrong place. You needed to wait for Kari Lehtonen to remove his mask. The smile you saw told you everything you needed to know.

Not only was Lehtonen back at practice, he wasn’t in pain. He could stand in net. He could bend his legs. He could move. The stiffness in his back was gone. Everything else was an afterthought.

There will be time over the next week or two for him to regain the form that made him the team’s No. 1 goalie. No one expected him to look game-ready on Monday, the first day in four weeks he faced shots from his teammates.

Lehtonen hasn’t played since October, and the 39 days since that game against the New York Rangers have tested his patience in ways that facing Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby never have.

“It was hard,” Lehtonen said. “Every night I went to bed and I hoped that it was going to be better in the morning. It just felt like it wasn’t getting any better. That was the hardest part.”

Lehtonen, 25, knows a thing or two about being hurt. He missed 16 games last season with a groin strain after missing 35 games with a groin injury in 2005-06. He has missed 16 games this season, and that number is sure to rise. This latest injury, though, has teased him in ways the others didn’t.

What started as discomfort in his left leg became debilitating stiffness in his lower back. At its worst, he couldn’t bend his leg. At its best, he felt like he should be skating with his teammates. He never knew how he’d feel the next morning.

At first, it looked as if the injury would keep him out only a week. He felt so good a month ago today that he told the coaching staff they could play him that afternoon at Carolina. They decided to wait, and they were right; his back locked up again.

The next three weeks were the most challenging.

“It was such up and down,” Lehtonen said. “It was very, very frustrating.”

MRIs showed a disc in his lower back was slightly out of place, and the inflammation was pinching a nerve. He has been treated with epidurals and rest.

He skated by himself last week as his teammates traveled to Montreal, Ottawa and Uniondale, N.Y. Monday’s practice was the next big test, and he was happy to have passed.

“The last week I’ve been pain-free,” Lehtonen said. “That should do it. I just hope it doesn’t come back.”

Thrashers coach John Anderson estimated Lehtonen needs a couple of weeks of practice before he’ll be ready to start a game.

“It’s probably just a matter of conditioning now, making him feel stronger in his legs,” Anderson said, “because those goalies have got to stand up with 100 pounds of equipment the whole game.”

Lehtonen is playing under a one-year contract that pays him $3 million.

It’s a key season for the No. 2 overall choice from the 2002 draft, and missing a month for the third time in four seasons won’t help his negotiating value for 2009-10. Fair or not, he might get pegged as injury-prone.

“I know that people will talk that way,” he said. “I just have to keep going and make sure I’m good when I come back. You can always hope nothing happens. We’ll see how it goes from here on out.”

1 comment:

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