So here we are with less than nine games left in the season. On the one hand, the Thrashers are heading for their 8th playoff less season in 9 years. On the other hand the team has been competitive for the last 30 games of the season. Back around January 12th Kovalchuk was named captain, Jason Williams was swapped out for Rich Peverley and Lehtonen began playing very frequently and very well.
Before January 12th the Thrashers were just 14-25-5--which put them on pace to finish a full 82 schedule with a pathetic 63 standings points. They were headed for an epic low finish. Since January 12th the Thrashers have gone 16-13-1 which is a 90 point pace (almost good enough to squeak into the playoffs).
What changed? The Goals For rose from 2.84 to 3.17 (+.34), but the big change came on the Goals Against which fell from 3.65 to 3.03 per game (-.62). The vast majority of the credit for the Thrashers turnaround rests on one player: Kari Lehtonen.
Before the turn around the Thrashers were out shot 32.6-27.4 each game and after the turnaround they were still being outshot by 33.9-29.1 per game. The team is still giving up way too many shots--but Lehtonen is simply stopping more of them than before. Before Jan. 12th the SV% for all three Atlanta goalies was a combined .888 and after that point it rose to .911
The Thrashers have been badly out shot almost every game this season--that has not changed in the 2nd half. What has changed is that Lehtonen is stopping a MUCH MUCH higher percentage of them (which would rank Atlanta 7th in the league if they did it over a full season).
Now if we look at just Kari Lehtonen the change is even more dramatic. Before Jan 12th Kari's SV% was .900 which would rank him just 37th out of the 46th NHL netminders. After Jan 12th his SV% was an outstanding .922 which would rank him 4th among all NHL goaltenders if he did that over a full season. Kari Lehtonen has been playing elite All-Star Level goaltending in case you didn't notice.
Not only does Kari have an outstanding SV% in the 2nd part of the season, but he is doing it while facing more Shots per game than any other goaltender in the NHL this season (see table below). Lehtonen leads the second goalie on that list by a full shot per game and he leads the 3rd goalie on that list by two full shots per game (guess what the Thrashers need to improve on next season) that is very impressive.
|Shots Faced Per Game
If Lehtonen played like this for an entire season he would be selected to the All Star Game and he would be talked mentioned as one of the elite netminders in the league. Lehtonen have improved on his SV% from one year to the next and if he can just stay healty he could become that All Star player the Thrashers hoped to see when they drafted him #2 overall.
Team ES ST%
Team ES ST%
In the past the Thrashers have scored more goals when Hedberg starts than they do when Lehtonen starts. Much like a pitcher in baseball who has a nice 5 run lead to work with Hedberg has collected more wins than he probably deserved and Lehtonen had fewer wins than he deserved. That trend reversed in this 2nd half as the Thrashers are coverting more of their Even Strength Shots when Lehtonen starts and Lehtonen has posted an astonishing .933 SV% at Even Strength since Jan 12th.
Can it last? Should fans start saving for playoff tickets next year? That depends on two things. Do you think Lehtonen can attain this level of performance next year and do you think he can start 64 games (his pace since Jan 12th). I've always thought Kari had the potential to be an All-Star but I have my doubts about him ever starting 64 games.
Comming Next: A look at the "before" and "after" stats for Thrasher Defense, Scoring Forwards and Checking Forwards.