Choosing a goalie has been the biggest decision yet one of the greatest advantages for the Dallas Stars in the postseason.
As the season played out and the Stars showed just how much they had improved from last season, the goalie duo became a more effective tool in piecing together wins. One would play until he had a particularly bad outing, then the other would take over the starting position. It was a never-ending cycle that helped the Stars finish off one of their best seasons ever (50-23-9, 109 points).
However, because of the success of the duo, it became clear that there could be an issue come playoff time. You usually don’t see a team continuing to alternate goalies during the postseason and most contending teams have a go-to guy that plays every single game.
It was certainly set to be a new approach for a different Stars team. Regardless, it has continued to work in their favor, even as they battle deeper and deeper into the playoffs.
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Lehtonen got the start for Game 1 of the first round. He went on to help the Stars win the first two games of the series before letting in five goals in Game 3. No problem. Niemi hopped onto the ice and helped the team pick up a win in a pivotal Game 4.
After he let in five goals in Game 5, Lehtonen returned to the ice in Game 6 and held on late to earn the start for Game 1 of the second round, where he stopped 31 out of 32 shots.
Things got rough in Game 2 as Lehtonen allowed three goals on five shots in the first period. Again, no problem. Niemi came out in the second period and held the St. Louis Blues scoreless for the remainder of regulation, allowing the Stars to come back and tie it up.
Though the Stars ultimately lost the game in OT, the goalie switch got a fresh body out on the ice, and with some big saves, the Stars ended up making a game out of a rather sloppy defensive performance.
The great thing about this situation for the Stars is that neither goalie is fighting for playing time. They both understand that the decisions head coach Lindy Ruff is making is for the sake of the team.
Lehtonen was quick to praise the move after Game 2 (via SportsDay):
"“There are two reasons why we do it. One is the goalie is not having his best night, and the other is to kind of wake up everybody, wake up the players and get something new going on there. I think it worked very well (Sunday). I think we got a jump there in the second. Antti made some huge saves right away and gave us a great chance to win a game.”"
The move was something that caught some by surprise, mostly individuals who had not watched much Stars hockey throughout the season. For any Stars fan watching, it was the obvious move to make and one that Ruff had made multiple times throughout the year.
Think about some of the other teams in the playoffs. The St. Louis Blues have the option of switching to Jake Allen over Brian Elliott, but they haven’t done it yet. The Nashville Predators rely solely on Pekka Rinne. The Washington Capitals might not even be in the second round if it wasn’t for Braden Holtby and Ben Bishop has helped the Tampa Bay Lightning through Steven Stamkos‘ absence.
Sure, neither Lehtonen or Niemi are superstar goalies, but they’re currently making the case that two star goalies can be just as good as one superstar. The Stars always have the option of making a change and they have confidence in whoever is in net, unlike other teams.
Both Lehtonen and Niemi have already helped the Stars earn wins in the postseason. Their willingness to swap starting positions with each other in the most important games of the season provide the Stars with an edge that no other playoff team has.