Little Things Mean a Lot
Tuesday, 04.22.2008 / 9:47 PM / Feature
By Ken Sins
There were unsung heroes aplenty in the Stars’ first-round knockout of the Anaheim Ducks. While big names Marty Turco, Brenden Morrow, Mike Ribeiro and Mike Modano played key roles against the Ducks, lesser lights like Stephane Robidas, Stu Barnes, Loui Eriksson and Trevor Daley were just as critical in determining the series outcome.
And let’s not overlook right winger Jere Lehtinen, who is often ignored despite notching two power-play goals and adding four assists in the six-game series.
It’s natural for fans and media to downplay Lehtinen’s contributions, but to do so would be a grave injustice to the 12-year veteran.
Playoff season is the best time of the year for Lehtinen. He’s reached the playoffs 10 times and has played more than 100 games in the postseason. His zest for the sport is always off the charts, especially in April and May.
“Every spring, it’s a great time, that’s where you want to be,’’ Lehtinen said. “That’s what you play for. Even when you’re a kid, the spring tournaments, that’s where you want to be. It’s a fun time.’’
In addition to his goals and assists, Lehtinen didn’t commit a penalty against the Ducks despite averaging more than 19 minutes per game in a rough-and-tumble series.
However, much of his game is missed by the untrained eye, although his work is much appreciated by coaches and teammates.
The 34-year-old Lehtinen’s strengths are in areas like positioning, stickwork and winning individual battles along the boards. His hockey sense is legendary. He’s a stifling forechecker, he excels at killing penalties, he fills a role on the power play, and his defensive presence is invaluable on a line with Ribeiro and Morrow. Lehtinen was a key member of the Stars’ 1999 Stanley Cup winner and he’s captured three Selke Trophies as the league’s best defensive forward.
He’s been playing this way for most of his NHL career.
“When I was younger, I might have been a little more of an offensive player, but I’ve always had (a strong two-way element) in my game,’’ Lehtinen said. “Coaches, when I was young they taught us to play both ways, not just offense. The guys I played with when I was younger, everybody did that. It’s been there all the time. To win, you have to play defense.’’
But is it easy to take Lehtinen’s solid, steady presence for granted?
“Probably, because you know every night he’s going to step in and do an unbelievable job and yet you don’t even notice him,’’ Robidas said. “All the little things that he does, he’s an elite player in the league. He doesn’t get recognition because of the type of player, the type of person that he is. He doesn’t look for attention. He minds his business and does his little things but he’s a big, big part of our team. He’s been really good for years and you need guys like that if you want to win the Stanley Cup.’’
Fans who watched the Stars annex their first and only Cup in ’99 won’t soon forget Lehtinen’s playoff run when he bagged 10 goals in the 23 games. The rest of his game was just as strong.
Now he can’t wait to get back to the Finals.
“You’re there before, and you want to be back,’’ Lehtinen said. “It might seem like a long time ago, but you remember it like it was yesterday.’’
The regular season just completed was frustrating for Lehtinen, who missed 33 games from November through January due to an abdominal injury. He finished with 15 goals, 22 assists and only 14 penalty minutes in 48 games, leaving him with fresher legs for the playoffs.
“It’s tough to miss that many games, but when the playoffs start, you’re happy,’’ Lehtinen said. “My legs, my body feel better. Maybe I’m a little more rested.’’
Said Modano: “He’s fought through injuries quite a bit through his career. He lays his body out there and sacrifices a lot for us. That’s the way he has to play. He’s been a real strong pillar for us in the playoffs, a good guy to be on Mike and Brenden’s line to guard against any defensive breakdowns.’’
Lehtinen provides balance on a scoring line with Ribeiro and Morrow. The trio combined for seven goals (five on the power play) and 13 assists in the Anaheim series.
Ribeiro utilizes his puck-handling skills to make plays deep in the offensive zone, and Morrow crashes the net for rebounds and deflections. And so, often it’s up to Lehtinen to get back on defense when there’s a turnover.
“It helps for sure,’’ Ribeiro said. “I try to play well defensively, but it’s huge to know he’s such a good all-around player. He turns pucks over so many times on the forecheck and that creates offense for us. He’s always in great position. He’s the third man back and he’s a complete player. He’s not going to hit as hard as some, but his stickwork and pressure on the puck are so good and that creates so many turnovers.’’
Teammate Niklas Hagman works out with Lehtinen during the summer when they’re back home in their native Finland. Lehtinen and Hagman are from the same area, and Hagman said Lehtinen is a hero in Espoo, Finland.
“For a lot of kids in our area, he’s the greatest,’’ Hagman said. “Not that many players come from Espoo. He’s won the Stanley Cup, he’s won Selkes. He’s been on the Finnish National Team. He doesn’t want to be in the spotlight much, but at home they really appreciate him."