Dallas Stars: Joni Pitkanen
Lehtonen played three years for Finland (2001-2003) at the World Juniors, and the 2002 tournament in Czech Republic was the one where he really stood out.
“It was my first tournament as the starter,” Lehtonen said. “It was my first season playing in the Finnish Elite League, too, so it was just a great year for me. “
Finland had taken the silver medal in 2001. Lehtonen was the backup in that tournament, playing in one game. The Finns were considered a favorite to medal again in 2002. They had an impressive roster with future NHL players like Jussi Jokinen, Mikko Koivu, Tuomo Ruutu, Sean Bergenheim and Joni Pitkanen.
And then there was Lehtonen, who was the top rated goaltender for that year’s NHL draft and had been impressive in the Under-18 World Junior Championship, leading Finland to a gold medal in 2000.
But the World Juniors, also known as the Under-20 World Junior Championship, was the big stage. And it was a big tournament for players who were in the mix to be drafted. A player’s stock could go up or down based on his performance at the World Juniors.
“You try not to think about it, but everybody knew it,” Lehtonen said. “That’s the hard part of that tournament. It’s so short; it’s two weeks or something like that. It’s just seven or eight games. If you have a bad stretch everybody thinks you’re not that good, but you are trying not to think about it and then after the tournament you’re ‘Whew, I’m happy that it went well.’ Especially that year, the year I was going to be drafted.”
Things went better than well for Lehtonen at the 2002 World Juniors. Lehtonen, 18-years-old at the time, was named the best goaltender at the tournament, posting a 1.17 goals against average and a .943 save percentage (116 saves on 123 shots) in six games.
The highlight of the tournament for Lehtonen was a 4-1 preliminary round victory over Canada in which he stopped 42 of 43 shots.
“That was the greatest feeling ever,” he said. “After that we felt we could go all the way.”
The Finns beat the Czechs 3-1 in the quarterfinals, but then in the semifinals they lost 2-1 in overtime to Russia, which went on to beat Canada in the gold medal game.
“It’s one of those things where sometimes you think about it and what could have been,” Lehtonen said.
Finland went on to beat Switzerland 4-1 to take the bronze medal. Lehtonen, considered the top goaltender for the 2002 NHL Entry Draft heading into the season, helped solidified that position with his performance at the 2002 World Juniors.
“It was one of those times where I started feeling that I could be a really good goalie,” Lehtonen said. “I saw myself playing against the best players of my age, and I was doing very well.”
Lehtonen capped off that season by helping Jokerit win the Finnish Elite League championship, and was named the playoff MVP. He was then selected 2nd overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft by the Atlanta Thrashers.
He played in his final World Juniors in 2003, leading Finland to another bronze medal in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Lehtonen had a 2.19 goals against average and a .923 save percentage in six games played.
“The building was packed, crazy media attention,” he said of the tournament held in Canada. “It was a good step forward in playing under pressure, and getting used to that. Lots of fun and good memories.”
Encountering an agitating Steve Ott
The World Junior Championship was Kari Lehtonen’s first encounter with the agitating abilities of current teammate Steve Ott, who was a member of Canada’s World Junior team in 2001 and 2002.
“He was agitating. I remember him shooting pucks at me,” said Lehtonen. “I played against him two years. I don’t remember which game it was, but he was shooting at me while I was trying to stretch during the warmups. He kept shooting pucks at me.”
Ott said he doesn’t specifically remember shooting pucks at Lehtonen, but did admit he could have done something along those lines.
“He probably doesn’t remember because he has done that dozens of time,” Lehtonen said with a smile.
2012 World Junior Championship
The 2012 World Junior Championship begins Monday in Calgary and Edmonton. Four Dallas Stars prospects will play in the tournament: Goaltender Jack Campbell (USA); defenseman Jamie Oleksiak (Canada); defenseman Patrik Nemeth (Sweden); defenseman John Klingberg (Sweden).
Q: Give us a scouting report on the Hurricanes. It appears they played one of their better games on Saturday.
A: Saturday night's 3-1 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning was one of the best games of the season so far for the Hurricanes. The team was mired in an early season slump, (14 consecutive games without a win), at one time had the worst record in the league, and ranks near the bottom of the league in most major categories. (Goals allowed, goals scored, powerplay percentage, etc.). They have yet to win a single road game all season long. (0-7-3).
Q: How has former Star Jussi Jokinen played this season?
A: Jokinen has been one of the few positives of the season. He is third on the team in points, (14), tied for first with goals scored, (6), and remains the most dangerous player in the league during a shootout. Recently, he notched his 26th career shootout goal, which is tops for all active NHL players. He is currently playing wing on Carolina's second line along with countryman Tuomo Ruutu and Minnesota native Matt Cullen, but the team would love to eventually move him to center.
The player has fit in nicely with the team and has helped fellow Finn, Joni Pitkanen feel more comfortable in Carolina, thus helping the star defenseman's game as well. Jokinen seems to be a player who thrives under pressure as he was one of the team's top scorers in last year's playoffs.
Q: Talk about the top line and how they have performed.
A: Currently, the top line is Brandon Sutter, Ray Whitney, and Erik Cole. Sutter is a recall from the AHL who has been filling in for Eric Staal and he has done a marvelous job. He has nine points in 13 games and has performed better than expected. Ray Whitney is a consistent point producer and has had a good year so far. (6G 9A 15P). Erik Cole broke a bone in his leg early in the year and missed several games. He is just starting to get back to prime condition.
Q: It looks like the power play has struggled (26th in the league). Why?
A: The team will tell you that it's because of lack of bodies in front of the net, but my opinion is that they have had lack of firepower and skill at the point. Joni Pitkanen has missed several games due to a variety of ailments, and he is an important cog for puck movement. Joe Corvo has had a rough start, (until recently) and the team needs his strong shot from the point to make it through to the net. Other than those two players, the Canes really do not have anyone steady who is consistent from the point, and they need more help.
Q: Which goalie will the Stars see on Monday? Tell us about him.
A: Manny Legace will start, which is an interesting story by itself. Cam Ward was cut in the leg by Rick Nash earlier this year and is out at least until December 5. Backup goalie Michael Leighton has a groin pull. The team signed Legace as insurance when Ward went down and he has been a fairly adequate replacement. He seems to be getting stronger each game and made 20 saves on 21 shots on Saturday night.
Q: Who are some other players Stars fans should keep an eye on?
A: Tuomo Ruutu has been red hot lately and has 9 points in his last 6 games. Defenseman, Joni Pitkanen is a joy to watch when he is on his game.
Q: Injury update?
A: All Star Eric Staal is out. Franchise goalie Cam Ward is out. Scott Walker is also nursing an injury and will miss the game.
Q: Anything else Stars fans should know about Carolina?