All this talk of goaltending stats analysis lately has me shaking my head. I understand that some people get their thrills from the analytical side of sports; making order out of chaos and finding reason.
And of course, if you’re a GM, you have to set emotion aside and find a way to objectively evaluate players.
But for me, the fun part of hockey is the unexpected, inexplicable magic. It’s watching a game and having a “holy crap, did I really just see that?” moment. It’s seeing players defy gravity, odds, logic, and what I thought were the boundaries of human toughness, sometimes all at once.
And it’s coming across a player I’ve never really given much thought to, but who, within a few glorious shifts, “wow”s me to the point where mere words no longer suffice.
At which point, I have no choice but to throw my bra at him.
And I’ll be honest here, Kari Lehtonen, who was always sort of the Ann Veal (“Her?”) of NHL goalies for me, has me wanting to throw an entire Nordstrom lingerie department at him. I’ve got it bad.
Here’s why it’s getting all double-D up in Lehtonen’s grill:
He’s really good at hockey: Even with my “stats shmats” mentality, Lehtonen’s numbers make my toes curl. He’s at the top of the league in the only goalie stat that really matters, winning all 6 of his starts so far this season. And he’s done it in the face of 35+ shots in all but 1 of those games (where he saw only 15 shots from the Blue Jackets).
Three other goalies have seen more shots, but Lehtonen still leads the league in saves at 199.
And yeah, it’s early and I know SOME folks around here are banking on Dallas coming back to earth before long, but with a .957 save % and 1.48 GAA, it won’t be because of Lehtonen.
He’s terminally under-appreciated: Everybody loves an underdog, and Lehtonen is dripping with underdog appeal. Season after season of injury upon injury culminated in back surgery that forced the Thrashers to move on without him, and then trade him to Dallas.
Though he’s a perennial holder of the “he good (when he’s healthy… which he never is)” qualifier, he’s always been humble and unassuming and, being a Thrasher, somewhat pitiable. So, he never quite got to the point of being the running joke that other oft-injured goalies with high hopes pinned on them (*cough*PrettyRicky*cough*) have become.
He’s loveable: Most are familiar with his Finnish nickname, Kärppä, which essentially means “weasel” (apparently they’re totally cool with weasels in Finland).
But the nickname I love is The Hamburgler, based on his love affair with McD’s cheeseburgers when he first came to America, because he couldn’t figure out where else to eat.
Plus, I have a soft spot for goalies who might have gotten along better in the days when the old “a fat goalie is a happy goalie” philosophy had some teeth. Twiggy or chiseled goalies need not apply at Ms. Conduct’s House of Goalie Love.
THAT GLOVE: Sweet leathery mercy. Nobody makes it to the show without having a decent glove but Lehtonen’s got eyes in his glove.
I’ve never seen a goalie so consistently make flawless glove saves in traffic. As a goalie myself, I watch plays around the net through goalie-colored glasses, and I know a bad situation when I see one. I get that prickly sense of panic up my spine and my pea brain squeaks, “Crap! Crap! DO SOMETHING!”
My favorite goalies are the ones who seem to get better the more hairy the situation. Loads of shots, lots of traffic, getting run, getting screened. Lehtonen might be the best yet. He is not only unflappable but makes it seem effortless to just be cool.
A Smiling Finn: I’m generally not that crazy about Finnish goalies, despite their devotion to being really really flexible. (Shazam!) They’re so even-keeled that they don’t always look to me like they’re having much fun. “I stop pucks. It’s okay. Good win for my team.” Sigh. (Tuukka Rask would get a pass for this, but he probably learned from it and will never do it again. Double-sigh.)
But Lehtonen looks like he’s having fun. It’s in his body language when he plays, it’s in the constant smile on his face, it’s in his creative mask designs (bonus points for going full tilt with the Texas-themed masks… I may be a hockey girl but I’m also devoutly Texan).
As linguistic wizard, Daryl Reaugh, wrote in his (always entertaining) Razor with an Edge blog last week: “[Lehtonen]‘s been a mistake eraser, a momentum dictator, and a game stealer.”
And despite some nice starts for several Stars (oh hey, Sheldon Souray!), he’s been the clear MVP of the team thus far. If “Lehtonen” isn’t Finnish for “Quiet Magic,” it should be, because that’s what’s happening up in Big D. Or down in Big D for the rest of you.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a bra to replace. In fact, I may just buy in bulk. It’s a long season and feel sure there’s plenty of bra-toss-worthy magic yet to come.