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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.

Video: After a slow start, Evander Kane is on a roll for the Sabres

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For about a month now, Evander Kane has enjoyed a particularly productive stretch for the Buffalo Sabres.

Kane scored with 5.6 seconds remaining in the first period of Sunday’s game versus the Chicago Blackhawks, converting on a nifty pass from Jack Eichel and going top shelf on Scott Darling.

He now has goals in three straight games, and 15 points in 14 games as the Sabres have fought their way back into the playoff race in the Eastern Conference.

Of course, this latest run comes just before the trade deadline, and Kane’s name has consistently been in speculation about a possible move — in addition to off-ice issues. While GM Tim Murray has said earlier this month that he’s not actively shopping Kane, he also didn’t absolutely rule out trading the 25-year-old left winger, now into his second season in Buffalo.

(Murray: “Is there a crazy deal that somebody could throw at me that would force me to do it? I guess there is.”)

Most impressive about Kane’s numbers — remember he missed time earlier this season with a rib injury and then had a slow start, which drew the ire of the coach — is that he’s done the vast majority of his scoring, 20 of 21 goals, at five-on-five.

WATCH LIVE: Bruins at Sharks

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 9: Dominic Moore #28 of the Boston Bruins defends Brent Burns #88 of the San Jose Sharks during the first period at TD Garden on February 9, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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The Boston Bruins are back from their bye week, looking to continue a three-game winning streak since Bruce Cassidy took over as head coach from Claude Julien.

The Bruins can extend their streak Sunday, when they visit the San Jose Sharks (8:30 p.m. ET). You can check out the game on NBCSN or online with NBC Sports’ Live Extra.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

Here are some links to check out for tonight’s game:

The NHL’s bye week experiment is still a work in progress

Pre-game reading: Are the Bruins and Avalanche on verge of trade?

Sharks have reason to wait on Thornton, Marleau extensions

Video: Trouba called for a hit to the head on Stone

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Jacob Trouba could be getting a call from the NHL Department of Player Safety for a hit to the head of Ottawa Senators forward Mark Stone.

The incident occurred during the third period of Sunday’s game, as Stone was passing the puck after he entered the zone. Trouba stepped up and delivered a high hit, resulting in only a minor penalty for an illegal check to the head.

Stone, who dealt with a concussion that was reported in September, remained down on the ice before eventually going to the dressing room.

As you can see from the video, Senators coach Guy Boucher was furious officials on the ice decided this was only worth a minor for Trouba.

Red Wings take advantage of Penguins’ mistakes in 5-2 win

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Even though the odds are stacked against them at this point, if the Detroit Red Wings are going to extend their playoff streak they are going to need to pile up a lot of wins the rest of the way to dig themselves out of the hole they put themselves in.

They took a big step toward doing that this weekend with two huge wins over the top two teams in the Eastern Conference.

They completed the weekend on Sunday with a rather convincing 5-2 win in Pittsburgh, taking advantage of a sloppy Penguins team that struggled in all phases of the game.

This win came just one day after the Red Wings beat the Washington Capitals in a shootout.

The big story for Detroit on Sunday early on was the play of starting goaltender Petr Mrazek — starting both ends of the back-to-back this week — as he made a couple of highlight reel saves to rob Ian Cole and Nick Bonino of what looked like sure goals.

In the two games this weekend he stopped 58 of the 62 shots he faced.

It has been a disappointing season for Mrazek individually, but he has worked to salvage it over the past four games by only allowing only nine goals on 160 shots (.943 save percentage).

As for the players in front of him, the Red Wings’ penalty killers were sensational on Sunday, frustrating the Penguins’ power play and limiting them to just three total shots on goal on their four power play attempts.

Three of the Penguins’ power plays failed to register a single shot on goal.

While Mrazek and the Red Wings were shutting down the Penguins’ high powered offensive attack, the Red Wings feasted on some brutal turnovers by the Penguins and an off day from Matt Murray in net to put five goals on the board. It was only the third time in the past month they scored more than three goals in a game.

They opened the scoring in the first period on a slick Nick Jensen goal following an Evgeni Malkin turnover in the offensive zone (seen above).

With the Red Wings holding a 2-1 lead entering the third period, a Jake Guentzel turnover resulted in Tomas Tatar‘s 14th goal of the season for the Red Wings to give them a two-goal lead.

Just two minutes later Thomas Vanek put the game away with his 15th goal of the season.

Sunday’s win is still just Detroit’s fourth in its past 14 games, while the Red Wings remain six points back of a playoff spot in 15th place in the Eastern Conference.

For the Penguins, it is their first loss in regulation since the All-Star break snapping what had been a nine-game point streak that saw them go 6-0-3.