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The next elite goalie

Atlanta's Lehtonen showing signs of greatness

Posted: Thursday October 12, 2006 12:51PM; Updated: Thursday October 12, 2006 4:03PM
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The outlook for Atlanta is much brighter now that Kari  Lehtonen is healthy and beginning to reach his immense potential.
The outlook for Atlanta is much brighter now that Kari Lehtonen is healthy and beginning to reach his immense potential.
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Four games into the new season and Ilya Kovalchuk has yet to light the lamp. Still, his Atlanta Thrashers are off to a franchise best 3-0-1 start. Kovalchuk has the kind of game-breaking skills that can account for two points in the standings all by themselves, and when he gets it going, the Thrashers will be a far more dangerous opponent. But until then, they hardly seem to miss his offense. Right now, Atlanta is home to The Kari Lehtonen Show.

Selected second in the 2002 Entry Draft, Lehtonen has been described for years as Blueland's goalie of the future. Based on his play to this point -- and yes, the date on the calendar is duly noted -- it's almost safe to say the future is now.

Four starts. Two shutouts. A .071 goals-against average. A .971 save percentage. Three wins.

It's easy to get caught up in numbers, especially when they paint such a pretty picture. But proof of the steps Lehtonen is taking toward his potential as the game's next elite goalie can't be divined from the stats page. You only can find it by watching him work his magic.

What he's doing now for the Thrashers is what Martin Brodeur does for the Devils, or Miikka Kiprusoff does for the Flames. With his calm, steady approach, Lehtonen makes the Thrashers better than they look on paper. It's not just that he makes the big saves, it's that he makes them look so effortless. By taking care of business so routinely, he gives his teammates the confidence to do their thing.

The results aren't glamorous. At the end of the night there are few moments for the highlight reel, because highlight reels are built on the exploitation of mistakes. And so far Lehtonen isn't making them (and neither is his unheralded defense, led by Andy Sutton, Niclas Havelid and Vitali Vishnevski).

Lehtonen uses almost flawless technique with textbook positioning and his massive 6-4, 195-pound frame to give shooters nowhere to aim. Sorties that might be rife with danger for another stopper are pedestrian for Lehtonen, with the puck hitting him in the chest or the pads before he quickly smothers it or pushes it harmlessly out of the way.

That command of his craft was in evidence Wednesday night in Atlanta's 4-1 dismantling of the Bruins. Twenty-three shots, 22 saves and really only one stop that was memorable -- an aggressive read of a dandy Phil Kessel move in the third period that robbed the rookie of his first NHL goal.

The one striking element of Lehtonen's game is that he doesn't play games. Patrick Roy, for example, loved to tease opposing players with daylight between his pillows or over his glove hand, tempting the shooter into putting the puck exactly where Roy wanted it. Lehtonen, on the other hand, simply gives the attacker nothing.

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