Handling pressure is nothing new for Lehtonen

Originally published in Eishockey News in 2007

By Lucas Aykroyd

“I’ve always said Patrick Roy was the best goalie I’ve ever seen, but this kid is going to be better.” That’s what former NHL star and Atlanta Thrashers scout Peter Mahovlich said about Kari Lehtonen a few years ago. So far in 2006-07, the 23-year-old Finn has worked hard to meet those lofty expectations.

Lehtonen, the #2 overall pick in the 2002 NHL Draft, was particularly impressive early in the season, when he set a Thrashers team record with a shutout streak of 167 minutes and 56 seconds over a four-game span between October 5 and 11.

Although Atlanta has a competent backup in Swedish veteran Johan Hedberg, Lehtonen plays nearly every night and faces a barrage of rubber. His 45 saves in a 6-3 win over Colorado on February 8 marked a career high. Remarkably, during his NHL career, the 193-cm, 91-kg Helsinki native has won almost twice as many games as he has lost when opponents fire 30 or more shots at him in a night.

Modestly, Lehtonen offers a common-sense explanation for this phenomenon: “It’s probably that when your team takes the lead, the other team pressures more and you end up facing more shots. If the other team is leading by four goals with 25 shots, usually they don’t shoot anymore.”

But really, without Lehtonen’s excellence, the Southeast Division-leading Thrashers likely wouldn’t be poised to make the playoffs for the first time in their seven-season history. Sure, they boast some of the league’s best European snipers in Marian Hossa, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Slava Kozlov. But their aggressive, wide-open approach leaves them more defensively vulnerable than other top NHL clubs.

From October through December, Atlanta collected points in three or more consecutive games on five different occasions. But so far in 2007, that hasn’t happened once.

“I think we’ve been doing a pretty solid job the whole season,” Lehtonen said. “But lately, we haven’t gotten too many wins. I don’t know where that comes from. Is it the penalty-killing or the power play? What’s missing? It hasn’t been as easy as it was earlier in the season. It’s getting tough, but we need to get tougher too.”

Lehtonen won the Finnish SM-Liiga’s playoff MVP award with Jokerit in 2001 and led the Chicago Wolves to the 2005 AHL final. Now he’s doing what’s necessary off the ice to prove he can excel in the NHL too.

In 2005-06, he missed half the season due to a groin pull in Atlanta’s opener, and that was partly blamed on his conditioning routine. He spent the off-season working hard with the team’s strength coaches to build up his core muscles and avoid a recurrence. Currently, he gets to the rink more than three hours before games to stretch and warm up.

“I’m in better shape than I was last year,” Lehtonen said. “I think that’s the biggest reason why I’ve been able to play so many games. Hopefully I can keep it up.”

His size, butterfly style, and quick reflexes have earned him the respect of some of the most knowledgeable hockey people around.

“Kari’s an excellent player,” said Vancouver Canucks goalie coach Ian Clark. “He’s tall, he’s lean, and he’s very structured in his game from a skill perspective. He’s got long arms and long legs, which gives him an opportunity to be very effective in scrambles.”

Lehtonen has absorbed the message for the 2007 stretch drive from playoff-savvy veterans like captain Scott Mellanby and two-time Stanley Cup winner Bobby Holik: “We can’t take any nights off. The other teams are coming after us. We have to keep playing hard, and that’s the main message coming out of their mouths.”

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