February 26, 2014

Stars’ Olympians ready for NHL play

Olympic medalists Jamie Benn and Kari Lehtonen recall Sochi experience before returning to NHL action.

Snap back to reality.

The dream that was the Winter Olympics for Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn and goalie Kari Lehtonen, both medalists for their respective countries, came to an end Wednesday as the players rejoined their NHL teammates for a single practice to prepare for Thursday’s return to action against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Benn won a gold medal with Canada. Lehtonen got a bronze with Finland.

“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” Benn said. “To have it go by so fast and to come out on top was pretty surreal. I’m sure it will sink in in the next couple of days.”

Benn, a non-invitee to Team Canada’s combine last summer, worked his way onto the Canadian roster through his stellar play through the first portion of the NHL season. He was the lone scorer in Team Canada’s semifinal victory over Team USA, which Benn said had the intensity of a gold medal match. Canada beat Sweden 3-0 in the gold medal game.

“It’s hard not to forget it,” Benn said of the goal. “It’s probably one of the biggest goals I’ve ever scored, if not the biggest. It was a great pass by [Jay] Bouwmeester, and I was lucky enough to get my stick on it.”

Benn finished with two goals in the Olympics.

“You want to be the guy that steps up in big games and big pressure situations,” Benn said. “It was great to score that goal. It’s something that I’ll never forget. It’s pretty cool that it was the only goal scored, but I couldn’t have done it without my teammates.”

It was working in those pressure situations and learning from the world’s best that Benn and Lehtonen hope to bring back to the Stars’ locker room as Dallas hunts for its first playoff berth in five seasons.

Lehtonen, who has limited playoff experience in the NHL, was thrown into the pressure cooker of an Olympic semifinal against Finland’s arch rival Sweden. Lehtonen took a loss in the match, but gained the experience of playing in a big game on an hour’s notice when Finnish starting goalie Tuukka Rask became ill.

“It was a new situation for me,” Lehtonen said. “I’ve been on the other side of that a few times through my career. Something has come up that I’ve not been able to play and now I know how it feels for the other guy. It was a little payback, but it was a nice situation to get put in.”

The Stars’ goalkeeper said he found out about Rask’s illness from a phone call from his wife, but dismissed it as a faulty rumor until he was notified by coaches an hour prior to the game.

Lehtonen saw action in two games for Finland, winning his first against Norway 6-1.

It’s a quick turnaround for not only those two Stars players but also Russian Olympian and Stars rookie winger Valeri Nichushkin and coach Lindy Ruff, who served as an assistant for Team Canada. Sleep has been necessary to work off the “fog” of jet lag and living in Russia over the past two weeks.

However, the Stars left themselves in a good position as the season came to a halt before the Olympic break by moving into the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference.

“[The desire to get into the playoffs has] been strong, but I think it feels more like reality this year the way we’ve been playing and just how our overall team is performing,” Lehtonen said.

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