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The downside – that “excellent goalie” play was in 2007, and back surgery (two of them) last summer had him sidelined all season until now. There certainly were a lot of questions.

Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk found himself between a rock and a hard place. The contracts of goalies Marty Turco and Alex Auld both expire on June 30 and each can walk without a new deal. Turco will be 35 this summer and his play over the last two seasons has been inconsistent. He will surely look for a deal close to his current $5.4 million salary but he, frankly, is not worth that price tag at this point in his career. GM Joe felt he had to make a move.

Oops. Bad time to hit the skids. By the time the month was only halfway gone, the playoffs were suddenly a pipe dream.

The bright side to the Stars’ early March woes is that the team got a chance to get a good look at Kari Lehtonen – Dallas’ probable No. 1 goalie for next season and possibly beyond that.

Acquired in a February trade with Atlanta, there’s a lot to like about Lehtonen. He’s only 26. He’s big (6' 4", 215 lbs), athletic and has been an excellent goalie at the NHL level.

“The situation with our goaltenders gave us the possibility of having none under contract for next season. We certainly could not take that chance,” t said. “I really felt that Kari fits the bill for what we were looking for. He’s big and extremely quick. I played against him and he can do some amazing things. I think he’s a goalie that can be a big player for us.”

The thing is, no one really expected to see “big play” from Lehtonen until next year. But the kid has not only shown flashes of his past performance, he has won games for Dallas as the best player on the ice.

His first home start, a mid-March tilt against

Western Conference leader San Jose, saw Lehtonen stop 45 shots in an 8-2 win. A few days later, he made tough saves look routine, stopping 34 shots in a 3-1 win at Nashville, which had won six in a row at the time and was battling for playoff positioning.

Lehtonen won three games in four starts that week. Though it was a small sample size, there was reason for optimism.

“Kari has looked comfortable out there and it is very encouraging to see him play at such a high level after a long time off,” Nieuwendyk said. “It gives us more to analyze and think about as we plan for next season. We’re excited about his future as a Dallas Star.”

For any goalie, confidence is a big key. Lehtonen has already found some in his short time with the Stars and looks to build upon it.

“I’m taking it one game at a time,” he said. “It was fun to see that I was able to play at a good level. No one knew if my body or my mind could handle it. I didn’t know what my confidence level would be. Having not played in a year, I started from zero and you try and build on it. No matter how well you do in practices, the games are always different and that’s where you always get it.”

Lehtonen has a history of being a dominant

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