The 2014 Winter Olympics may be over for Dallas Stars‘ goaltender Kari Lehtonen, but the lessons and experiences he gained with Team Finland will stick with him forever. The Stars are all the better for it.
Lehtonen was widely considered Finland’s third goalie before the Olympics began. Tuukka Rask is considered one of the top goalies in the NHL and Anntti Niemi boasts solid career statistics and a Stanley Cup ring with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, so Lehtonen’s chances of seeing action seemed to be slim.
He got his first chance in Finland’s second game of the tournament. Lehtonen stopped 20 of 21 shots en route to a 6-1 victory over Norway. He was calm and solid in net, allowing the lone goal on a 5-on-3 penalty kill. Rask was expected to man Finland’s net the rest of the tournament, but he fell ill with the flu leading up to the semifinal against Sweden. Lehtonen stepped in on short notice with the pressure of trying to lead his team to the gold medal game.
Lehtonen did not end up with the result he wanted, but he gave Finland a chance to win. Again, he was calm and safe in net, and he stopped 23 of 25 shots. The goal he would want back is the game-winner from Erik Karlsson near the blue line. The shot trickled off Lehtonen’s arm and into the net to give Sweden a 2-1 lead that would stand to end the game.
Rask was back in goal the next day for the bronze medal game against the United States. Finland dominated most of the game en route to a 5-0 victory. Lehtonen did not just receive a bronze medal, he earned it. He worked hard to become Rask’s backup and had two solid performances in the tournament.
He learned a lot as both a backup and starter. Playing on bigger ice, on the biggest stage he has ever played on and against the best players in the world in such a short span threw a lot at Lehtonen. He handled it all well and was rewarded with a medal. Since Lehtonen only played in two games, he also received some much-needed rest.
Lehtonen will return to the Dallas next week with new experiences and a bolstered confidence that should help push him and the Stars forward as they try to reach the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.