Goalie withdraws from Finnish Olympic team

ATLANTA -- Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen withdrew from Finland's Olympic team on Thursday, saying he hasn't fully recovered from a groin injury that kept him out of 35 games.

Lehtonen, who was injured in the season opener, returned to the Atlanta lineup in late December and helped the Thrashers climb back into playoff contention. He came into Thursday's game against Carolina with 6-4-1 record and a 2.57 goals-against average.

But the team's medical staff thought it would be better for Lehtonen to use the 2½-week Olympic break to strengthen his groin. The goalie telephoned Jari Kurri, the former NHL star serving as Finland's general manager, to pull out of the Olympics.

"I had hoped to be further along with my groin injury and strong enough to help Finland compete for a gold medal, but I'm still not playing at full strength and don't feel my game is at the level it needs to be," Lehtonen said in a statement.

Lehtonen was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 entry draft but has yet to play a full season in the NHL. His withdrawal leaves Finland with two goalies: Miikka Kiprusoff of the Flames and Fredrik Norrena, who plays for Linkoping in the Swedish league.

Finland will be able to name a replacement for Lehtonen. Among the likely candidates: NHL goalies Antero Niittymaki of Philadelphia, Jussi Markkanen of Edmonton, Vesa Toskala of San Jose and Hannu Toivonen of Boston.

"I'm very disappointed that I'm unable to represent my country, but after speaking with our doctors, we feel it's the best thing to do at this time and my only real option," Lehtonen said. "We will now use the Olympic break as a part of my rehab program in an effort to continue strengthening the injury for the final stretch of the season."

Thrashers general manager Don Waddell, who will also serve as GM of the U.S. Olympic team, said Lehtonen first approached the team last week about withdrawing from the Finnish team. The groin still bothers him the day after games, limiting him at practice and preventing him from playing on back-to-back nights.

"His injury is healing, but the endurance part is not going so fast," Waddell said. "He's been sore after every game this year."