Heading into the 2006-07 season, goaltender Kari Lehtonen was eager to prove how much he could accomplish in a full, healthy season of play.
The results at the All-Star Break are quite impressive.
The 24-year-old native of Helsinki, Finland, selected by the Thrashers with their first pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft (second overall), has played in 42 games (40 starts), winning a career-high 22 of them, with a 2.77 goals against average and a .912 save percentage. He set a team-record back in October with a 167:56 shutout streak and has already set a Thrashers single-season record by posting four shutouts, including a franchise career-record-setting seventh shutout on Nov. 30 against Toronto. Lehtonen is three wins away from setting the franchise record for career-wins (49) and four away from setting the single-season-wins record (26).
More important, led by Lehtonen, the Thrashers go into the break with a six-point lead in the Southeast Division and are only one point out of second place in the Eastern Conference.
In recognition of his stellar play, he was chosen as the goalie for the Eastern Conference in Tuesday’s YoungStars game.
Atlantathrashers.com’s caught up with Lehtonen to ask him about his first career appearance in All-Star Game festivities, who he is looking forward to playing with and against in Dallas, and his expectations on playing in the YoungStars contest, where the goaltender likely will be not only the last line of defense but the only one.
1. How did it feel to be chosen to play in the YoungStars game?
LEHTONEN: It’s an honor to be chosen. It feels especially good because there are so many good young goalies, especially in the Eastern Conference. To be chosen to play in the game is pretty cool.
2. How does it feel to be the first Atlanta Thrashers goaltender ever to appear in an NHL All-Star event?
LEHTONEN: I hadn’t really thought about that. It’s not really the big game, though (laughs). But I’m really excited to play in the game and to represent the Atlanta Thrashers.
3. Who on the Eastern Conference are you looking forward to playing with?
LEHTONEN: [Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni] Malkin is one guy who’s going to be fun to meet and to play with. I don’t know. We’ll see. I’m sure there are lots of good guys and I’m going to have lots of good new friends. That’s why those things are fun.
4. Is there anyone you know on the Western Conference that you know or are looking forward to playing against?
LEHTONEN: [Dallas Stars left wing] Jussi Jokinen, because he’s from Finland and we used to play on the junior national teams together. It’s going to be fun to see him and play against him.
5. Goaltenders don't usually get a lot of defensive help in All-Star Games. Is that a concern for you?
LEHTONEN: No. It’s actually a lot easier to go there because nobody expects the goalie to be good in that game so if you do well that’s great. If not, it doesn’t matter. I just want to have fun and maybe make one big save that I can be happy about. Maybe I can keep the goals in single digits. I’m just going to try and have fun and we’ll see how it goes.
BONUS: Marian Hossa kidded that he had no sympathy for goalies because they're the best in the world. Any response?
LEHTONEN: I don’t know. He is a pretty good player. He makes me mad a few times in a practice a year easily. I don’t know. Maybe that’s true.