Mac Engel

April 27, 2014

Stars can celebrate a good year but need to solve goalie problem

Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen pulls a Romo-esque choke to blow Game 6.

In about a week, maybe less, the Dallas Stars will look back at this season with fondness and start the prep work for next year to call 2013-14 as a new beginning. It will be a believable, marketable message.

And in a week, that’s fine. Right now, don’t buy a word of it; just focus on a collapse that would make any Dallas Cowboy proud.

Monday, the Stars should have been heading to Southern California to play a Game 7 against the Anaheim Ducks but instead will be cleaning out their lockers because they choked and their goalie has a bit too much Tony Romo in him.

The Stars led 4-2 late in the third period and lost 5-4 early in overtime.

The Ducks won the series 4-2, and the Stars’ season is over. It was the first time in this series the home team lost.

“It’s a cruel lesson,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “I am proud of the way they played. They played hard. Really hard. … The one thing that was missing was a little bit of finish.”

How the Stars became the first home team to lose in this series is because they finally looked inexperienced, and their goalie pulled a Romo.

The Stars led by two in the third period before the Ducks scored a pair of goals with less than three minutes remaining, including the tying goal with 24 seconds left in regulation.

The Stars team that came out to play in overtime looked like the Walking Dead; given the events of the final few minutes in regulation, when the Ducks cycled deep in the Stars’ zone early in overtime, the end felt inevitable.

The Ducks won when Nick Bonino beat goalie Kari Lehtonen on a relatively clean wrister; Lehtonen stayed on his butt for a few minutes as he watched the Ducks celebrate a win that should have been his.

The Stars likely were not going to defeat the Ducks in Game 7 — the Stars have not won a Game 7 on the road since 1980 — but it would have been fun to watch it play out.

As the eight seed, the Stars were going to need some luck to win this series and for Lehtonen to be better than his hit-or-miss style. The Ducks did not have the better goalie, but despite two solid performances in Games 3 and 4, he was never the difference.

Even when he was the difference, it never felt solid because he always looked shaky.

This series loss is not all about Lehtonen; the team was the eight seed for a reason. When the Stars led 4-2 in the third period Sunday, they dropped back and played tentative as if they were staring at the clock to expire so they could prepare for Game 7.

Center Tyler Seguin, who ranked fourth in the regular season in the NHL in points, was not bad, but his team needed more from him. He never scored a power-play goal in this series after a regular season where he was tied for eighth in that category.

The Stars already know they have to address their problems on defense this off-season and figure out what they are going to do with Sergei Gonchar, among other areas.

Lehtonen has to be a concern for this organization, too, but they are stuck with him.

This is not the NHL of 2000 when the game was built on the goalie, but at some point your guy in net has to be special when his teammates are average. There is no rule the NHL can ever change to deviate from that hockey reality.

Lehtonen has been special against Nashville in February, but these playoffs confirmed concerns that he is not special.

No one is questioning if he is any good — he was not picked to represent Team Finland in the Olympics because he is terrible — but there has to be a concern if he is good enough.

The problem for the Stars is that they are locked in at $5.9 million per season through 2017-18. When an NHL team flushes a contract, the player gets the money, and the team takes that cap figure for the duration of the original deal.

Minor league prospect Jack Campbell awaits for the Stars, and should he make this roster in the fall, he is going to push Lehtonen.

Stars GM Jim Nill, coach Lindy Ruff and team owner Tom Gaglardi are not going to push Lehtonen simply because of the contract.

The brass that runs this team realizes it has a potential serious winner on its hands, and if Campbell is better, he will play.

Having made the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and sold out three home playoff games, the team had a good season. Tickets are being sold. The Stars have something to sell again.

Buy it, because it’s the truth.

But, right now, this team gagged, and some of that falls on a goalie that, ultimately, looks like more of a concern than a solution.

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