Dallas Stars on top with rare goaltending strategy

Jamie Benn scored twice, assisted both times by Tyler Seguin, to help the Stars get a 3-0 win over the Sabres.

“Goaltending wins games,” the smart ones say.

“Build from the net out,” the team archaeologists advise.

“You need a clear-cut No. 1 netminder,” the analysts argue.

So it flies in the face of that very same logic that we’re a quarter of the way through the 2015-16 season and the top team in the National Hockey League ranks 24th in goals against and doesn’t have a single goaltender who ranks among the top 20 in save percentage, goals-against average, or — get this — starts.

Consider the other three divisional leaders at this juncture. Montreal’s Stanley Cup hopes rest with Carey Price, the reigning MVP of the entire league. The New York Rangers are getting all-world support from their all-world No. 1, with Henrik Lundqvist‘s unsustainable-but-let’s-enjoy-it .943 save percentage. And the San Jose Sharks seemingly live and die by Martin Jones‘ hot streaks. It’s no fluke that the Sharks’ six-game winning streak coincides with Jones being named first star of the week and notching his NHL-high third shutout.

LISTEN: Jim Nill talks about the Stars’ early-season success

Then there’s Dallas, pouring $10.4 million into a pair of solid but unspectacular netminders — one of whom San Jose no longer wanted. And the Stars are thrilled about the results they’ve yielded from embracing the rare true tandem, even if neither starter’s numbers rank among the NHL’s top 12. We’d be lying if we argued that net presence is the main reason the Stars are winning, but goaltending is preventing them from losing.

Kari Lehtonen (10 games played, .923 save percentage) and Antti Niemi (12 games played, .917 save percentage)—those flexible Finns—have combined to win 17 games and lose just four games in regulation, fewest in the Western Conference.

Yet the only time a Dallas goalie stole headlines this fall was when Niemi wore a sweater with his name misspelled.

It goes without saying that Dallas’s high-octane offence, fuelled by the NHL’s top goal-scorer, Jamie Benn, and Tyler Seguin, is Exhibit A in the case for the Stars’ rise to contender. (The continued emergence of sophomore John Klingberg as a blue-line stud is probably Exhibit B.) But the addition of Niemi and, moreover, the switch to a shared workload in goal is significant.

“Kari Lehtonen has had to play [65] out of 82 games ever since I’ve been here,” Stars general manager Jim Nill told Hockey Central at Noon Monday. “That’s asking a lot of a guy to do, especially in today’s game. On top of that, our travel down here in Dallas is tough. We’re two to four hours from everywhere.

“If we’re playing Chicago on a back-to-back, we’re getting in at three in the morning and playing at 5 p.m. the next day. That’s hard. That’s a lot of pressure on a goalie.”

Had Lehtonen had so much as an average season in 2014-15, instead of his worst as an NHLer, the Stars likely would’ve made the playoffs in 2014-15.

Nill made a point of adding another goalie in the off-season and spoke to Lehtonen to gauge his response on a potential tandem before inking the Niemi trade with San Jose. The two 32-year-olds knew each other as young teammates in Finland.

“[Lehtonen] was excited about it: the opportunity to get fresh and have practice time,” Nill said. “They’ve both bought into it. They really do enjoy the practice time. They’re both playing two or three games in a row, then they get three or four days of practice to get sharp.

“It’s worked out so far.”

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