Would it have been different if Antti Niemi started instead of Kari Lehtonen? Tough to say. Lehtonen was the hotter hand and Niemi’s numbers in the post-season (.865 SP, 3.29 GAA) weren’t exactly inspiring any confidence. But Lehtonen didn’t even make it back into the crease to start the second period after allowing three goals (plus one that was called back because of an offside) on eight first period shots.
After the game, Stars coach Lindy Ruff talked about Lehtonen’s game and the decision to keep him in the net after a very shaky second goal. From the Dallas Morning News:
“He’d want them back,” Ruff said of the goals Lehtonen allowed. “I think maybe it’s on me. Maybe with that review and maybe looked like he got a little bit rattled. I should’ve taken him out sooner. Yeah, maybe after the second one because I already had a review on a goal I didn’t like. You have one decision, so that’s probably on me.”
Game 7 marked the fourth time in this series Lehtonen allowed at least three goals in a game. In Game 2, Lehtonen allowed three goals on just five first period shots before he was pulled for Niemi, who shut the door the rest of the way. In Game 3, Lehtonen came on in relief of Niemi — who had a brutal start himself — and allowed three goals on 27 shots over a little less than two periods.
Ruff refused to blame the goaltending for the Game 7 loss, pointing out that the Stars didn’t score enough anyway.
“Right now is not the time to assess blame,” Ruff said. “You got to look at the whole picture. You got to take the fact you didn’t score and you had some situations that you needed to score. If you’re going to beat a good team, you need to score two at the same time. You need to put some of those situations away. Now is not the time for that. Now is the time to look at more of a bigger picture.”
Both Lehtonen and Niemi are signed for another two seasons for a combined cap hit of $10.4 million, leaving many to wonder if a buyout is coming for at least one of them this summer. Lehtonen has the higher cap hit ($5.9 million) and a buyout for him would cost the Stars the following cap hits over the next four years, according to GeneralFanager.com: $1.73 million, $2.73 million, $1.83 million, $1.83 million.
Goaltending was a clear issue for the Stars, not knowing what they might get out of their goaltenders from one night to the next. Remember, in Game 6, Lehtonen played tremendously and his leg save in the dying seconds saved that game from going to overtime, and got the Stars to Game 7 in the first place.
But despite this weakness of inconsistency in net (and without star Tyler Seguin), Dallas still came within one win of reaching the Western Conference Final.
It just finally caught up to them in the most important game of the season.