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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.

Devils’ Merrill undergoes shoulder surgery, out four months

NEWARK, NJ - JANUARY 04: Jon Merrill #7 of the New Jersey Devils skates against the Detroit Red Wings at the Prudential Center on January 4, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey. The Red Wings defeated the Devils 1-0.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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New Jersey d-man Jon Merrill, who struggled through an injury-riddled campaign, has undergone successful shoulder surgery with an expected recovery time of four months, the club announced on Wednesday.

Merrill, 24, only appeared in 47 games this year, first missing time with an arm injury, then suffering a shoulder ailment late in the year.

There was no clear indication if the two ailments were related, but Merrill’s arm injury was on the right side, and surgery was on his right shoulder.

A former University of Michigan standout taken 38th overall in 2010, Merrill enjoyed solid rookie and sophomore campaigns in New Jersey. His second year was especially solid — 14 points in 66 games, averaging over 20 minutes per night — and he boasts good size, going 6-foot-3, 205 pounds.

Based on the four-month timetable for recovery, Merrill will likely miss parts of New Jersey’s training camp and preseason action.

Max Talbot mulling European options for next season

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After a 10-year career with over 700 games played and one Stanley Cup, Maxime Talbot could be done in the NHL.

Per RDS, Talbot — who’ll hit unrestricted free agency on July 1 — has “some options in Europe” for next season, and is contemplating a move overseas.

In his prime, Talbot was a gritty, hardworking forward with decent touch around the net. He scored double-digit goals four times, including a career-high 19 in ’11-12.

The 32-year-old split last season between Boston and its AHL affiliate in Providence, scoring seven points in 38 games at the NHL level.

Talbot did acquit himself very well with the P-Bruins — 21 points in 26 games — and has some experience playing abroad, having suited up for Finnish League club Ilves Tampere during the lockout.

Based on how things went last year in free agency, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Talbot land in Europe.

The likes of Maxim Lapierre, Curtis Glencross and Marcel Goc all failed to score NHL contracts last summer — Lapierre and Goc proceeded to sign overseas, while Glencross opted to retire.

 

Ex-‘Hawks coach Suhonen takes Austrian national team job

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 13:  Thomas Raffl #5 of Austria celebrates with his teammates after Thomas Hundertpfund #27 scored a goal in the first period against Tuukka Rask #40 of Finland during the Men's Ice Hockey Preliminary Round Group B game on day six of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 13, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Alpo Suhonen, who became the first European-born NHL coach in over 50 years upon taking the Chicago gig in 2000, has been named the new bench boss of the Austrian men’s national team, per IIHF.com.

Suhonen, 67, takes over from former NHL defenseman Dan Ratushny, who was splitting duties between Team Austria and Lausanne of the Swiss League.

Suhonen takes over the national team at a critical juncture. Austria finished a disappointing fourth at the 2016 World Hockey Championship Division 1 tournament — meaning the country finished 20th overall. As the IIHF websites notes, that’s the worst finish for Austria in 86 years of WHC competition.

Looking forward, Austria does have a chance to make amends this summer, when it will play a series of contests to prep for Olympic qualification.

Suhonen inherits a roster with decent NHL pedigree as Thomas Vanek, Michael Raffl and Michael Grabner are all eligible to participate.

That said, Vanek was named to Team Europe’s initial 16-man roster for the World Cup of Hockey, and it remains to be seen how that will impact his national team commitments.

Datsyuk’s agent acknowledges offer from KHL’s SKA, but no deal yet

Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk (13) celebrates his empty net goal against the Edmonton Oilers in the third period of an NHL hockey game in Detroit Monday, March 9, 2015. Detroit won 5-2. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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Gennady Timchenko, the billionaire chairman of KHL club SKA Saint Petersburg, reportedly believes there’s a “good chance” that Pavel Datsyuk will be playing for his team next season.

But according to Datsyuk’s agent, Dan Milstein, there’s only been an offer from SKA. Nothing has been signed yet. There could still be offers from other KHL teams for his client to consider.

And at any rate, Milstein insisted once again that Datysuk won’t be making any decisions until he speaks with the Detroit Red Wings in mid-June, after the 37-year-old returns from a family vacation.

Milstein passed along that update to Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press, plus a few other Wings reporters.

Related: Datsyuk ‘wants to make sure the Wings have options’