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Kari Lehtonen proving to be a goaltender the Stars can depend on

Tonight, the Stars travel to Anaheim and are looking to win in a place where they haven’t won since the beginning of last season. The Stars have won 3 in a row without Brad Richards (also out tonight) and are in the middle of an extremely important four game road trip that has them facing four divisional rivals. This trip might not make their season—but it certainly could ruin it if they dropped a few and lost ground on the rest of the Western Conference contenders.

Even though they’ve lost ground over the last month, most people around the Stars would tell you they would have been happy just knowing they’d have a shot at the playoffs in March. This was supposed to be a rough season with most of the pundits projecting a 4th or 5th place finish in the Pacific and a top 10 draft pick in June. Sure, they still might finish in 4th or 5th in the Pacific—but that might be good enough for a playoff spot in this crazy season.

The person most responsible for the surprising success: Kari Lehtonen.

When the Stars picked up Lehtonen last season from the Atlanta Thrashers for highly-touted prospect Ivan Vishnevskiy, they were getting a goaltender that had all the talent in the world. They were getting a former #2 overall pick and a guy who was supposed to be the cornerstone of the Thrashers in net for years to come. They also got a guy who had never been able to stay healthy for an entire NHL season. So it seemed pretty simple from the Stars’ perspective—if they believed he could stay healthy then they were getting a player who could make a difference. Well, 60 games into the season and he’s stayed relatively healthy. And he’s been a difference maker.

People around hockey will tell you that as important as save percentage and goals against average can be for a goaltender, it’s when the goaltender makes the saves that is important for the team. Does he keep his team in the game when the opponents come out of the locker room like gangbusters? Does he make that one save when his team has been dominating but has been unable to score? Does he make the saves at the end of a close game? Is he usually his team’s best penalty killer? Find a goaltender that makes those saves on a regular basis and statistics are almost secondary.

The biggest knock on the Stars coming into the season was the gigantic question mark that hung over their defense. They had the underrated Stephane Robidas coming back to anchor the blueline, but just about every other player had uncertainty surrounding them. Would Nicklas Grossman be able to play big time minutes? Would Trevor Daley continue to develop into a stable defenseman instead of an out-of-place forward? Could Mark Fistric limit errors in his own end and become the kind of player who could play minutes on the 2nd power play unit? Could Matt Niskanen resemble someone other than Matt Niskanen?

There was a ton of uncertainty.

Not all of those questions have been fully answered. The positives have been that Grossman proved to be a strong top 4 defenseman (when healthy) and Daley has played his way to a long-term contract extension. The negatives have been Fistric only shows flashes of taking the next step and Niskanen played his way out of town. It’s certainly been a mixed bag that should be helped by the Alex Goligoski acquisition, but things could be better.

The difference this season has been that Kari Lehtonen’s stellar play has quieted most of the complaining. When the players in front of him make a bad read or miss a coverage assignment, Lehtonen has been there to bailout his teammates time and time again. If there were a statistic that measured the unbelievable to regular save ratio, Lehtonen would be putting up Tim Thomasian numbers. Its one thing to make 29 saves; it’s something totally different when a lot of them are of the spectacular variety. Not only has Lehtonen done that for the Stars this season—they’ve expected it.

The Stars will need him to be on the top of his game for the rest of the season if they want to fulfill the promise they showed at the beginning of the season. It starts tonight against the Ducks and after an expected break against San Jose, should continue in Los Angeles on Monday night.

Remember, as Kari Lehtonen goes, so go the Stars. Luckily for fans in Dallas, he’s getting hot at just the right time.

Oilers recall D-man Oesterle from AHL Condors

EDMONTON, AB - FEBRUARY 23:  Jordan Oesterle #82 of the Edmonton Oilers warms up against the Ottawa Senators on February 23, 2016 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
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The Edmonton Oilers made a move Sunday, recalling defenseman Jordan Oesterle from the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL.

In 18 games with the Condors this season, the 24-year-old Oesterle has three goals and 11 points.

The decision comes one day after Oilers defenseman Adam Larsson missed Saturday’s contest against the rival Calgary Flames because of a lower-body injury.

While he isn’t a flashy player, Larsson seems to have made a positive impression on the Oilers coaching staff during his first season in Edmonton following last summer’s blockbuster trade involving scoring winger Taylor Hall.

No surprise this development is leading to questions about the health of Larsson, with the Oilers set to begin the second half of a six-game home stand and sitting second in the Pacific Division standings.

Video: Reaves and Boll drop the gloves in heavyweight bout

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Heavyweight fighters Jared Boll and Ryan Reaves dropped the gloves during the second period of Sunday’s game between the Anaheim Ducks and St. Louis Blues.

Those were some thunderous right hands thrown there, both combatants landing their fair share of punches before officials finally intervened.

The Wild sit all alone in top spot of the Central Division

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The Minnesota Wild bested the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday, and now sit in sole possession of first place in the Central Division.

Playing the second half of a back-to-back situation that involved travel from Dallas, where Minnesota won Saturday, the Wild fell behind Chicago courtesy two goals from Patrick Kane. Sure, the first goal on Devan Dubnyk was fluttered off the stick of Kane and under the arm of the Minnesota goalie.

But Dubnyk played the remainder of this pivotal game the way Wild fans have become accustomed to since he was acquired. He made 33 saves and was busiest in the second period. Outside of Kane’s second goal, Dubnyk was solid in the middle period and didn’t give up anything the rest of the way. The Wild came back for a 3-2 win. On the road. In hostile territory.

Minnesota, not far removed from a franchise-best 12-game winning streak, now sits at 61 points in 42 games, two points ahead of the Blackhawks and with four fewer games played.

Jason Pominville scored the winner early in the third period.

There are many reasons for the Wild’s success through the first half under coach Bruce Boudreau. Dubnyk’s play has been Vezina caliber. He has a .940 save percentage and a 1.77 goals-against average. Minnesota is second in the league when it comes to the lowest number of goals-against per game and only Washington is better in that category.

The Wild have been scoring plenty, too, fourth in the league with 3.19 goals-for per game, with contributions throughout their lineup.

Free agent signings can always be a risk — an expensive risk — but Eric Staal has rewarded the Wild by producing at just under a point per game rate. He could have his most productive season in several years — at the age of 32 and approaching 1,000 regular season games played.

They won’t have long to enjoy their view from the top.

The Wild host the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday to begin a four-game home stand.

More bad news for Bolts: Callahan out four weeks with lower-body injury

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 10: Ryan Callahan #24 of the Tampa Bay Lightning reacts against the Chicago Blackhawks during Game Four of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the United Center on June 10, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Four points out of a playoff spot in the Atlantic Division and about to begin a six-game road trip, the Tampa Bay Lightning face a tough task trying to climb the Eastern Conference standings.

There was more bad news for the Bolts on Sunday.

Forward Ryan Callahan, who hasn’t played since Jan. 7, will miss approximately four weeks because of a lower-body injury, the club announced.

Callahan made his season debut at the end of October. The start to his season was delayed due to the recovery from hip surgery he underwent to fix an issue from last season. Based on a report from Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times on Sunday, Callahan is once again dealing with a hip injury, although the club didn’t elaborate, announcing it as a lower-body injury.

In 18 games this season, Callahan has two goals and four points.

The Bolts, Stanley Cup contenders that have gone deep into the post-season in each of the last two campaigns, are 3-6-1 in their last 10 games. Right now, Toronto, Ottawa and Florida all sit ahead of the Lightning in the battle for third in the Atlantic. Now into the second half of the season, they will have to quickly get out of this funk in order to close in the post-season race.

“The results are all that matters,” Brian Boyle told the Tampa Bay Times. “We need to change our attitude a little bit, kind of find our mojo, carry ourselves with a little bit more confidence. We can score quick goals. We can come from behind, jump out to leads and bury teams. We’ve done that in the past with this group.”

The Bolts begin this six-game road trip Monday against the L.A. Kings.