Lehtonen: Looking back to the breakthrough

By Pekka Lampinen

The Prodigy

Last summer, a young goaltender by the name of Kari Lehtonen prepared for the upcoming season with mixed feelings. With the unexpected loss of Pasi Nurminen, his Finnish elite league team Jokerit now counted on Lehtonen and an older rookie Markus Helanen to guard the net. The previous season had ended in disappointment when the regular season winner Jokerit was beaten in the first playoff series and Team Finland surprised by the Swiss in the U-18 world championships after dominating in round robin. However, the management didn’t have enough faith in Lehtonen and Helanen, so the team acquired Jamie Ram from Japan. Markus was sent down to the tier two league, while Kari stayed with the big boys.

Soon it became apparent that the year in Japan didn’t do good for the Canadian goalie. Ram was in bad shape and his technique had suffered. In the opening night Jokerit managed to beat Ilves 7-4, but not thanks to the netminder. Ram needed more training, and that is where the young backup jumped in. The ghosts of the past didn’t haunt the team when they were victorious over Kärpät, the team that surprisingly ended their season in the previous spring. Lehtonen saved a load of shots, securing a shutout. In the following game against the local rival IFK that was broadcast all over the country he made himself known to those who had only heard of a particularly good young ‘tender playing in the Jesters.

The Parity

In about a month, after a dozen games, Ram was finally ready to carry a heavier burden. Everybody had been so busy laughing at the team’s acquisition that they didn’t notice he was already playing like the best of them. Now that the two were basically on par, the team obviously counted on the veteran to be the one to lead them to the championship rather than the rookie. Still, a single game would shift the tide and around the time Kari turned 18 in mid-November, they started sharing the minutes equally again.

Then came the Christmas break and the world junior championships. With the backup of the 2000 U-18 WC, Joni Puurula, still out of action, no one challenged Lehtonen for the starter’s post. Apart from an awkward goal scored by the Swiss and another by the Russians, he played a near-perfect tourney. Kari was awarded as the best goaltender (Pascal Leclaire made the first all-stars in his place, though), but if possible, he would have used the prize to turn the bronze medal into gold without a doubt.

WJC: 6/7 GP, 4-2-0, 1 SO, 1.17 GAA (1st), .943 SV% (1st), faced 21 shots/game

When the team returned to Finland, Jokerit had already played three games. The teams often give a bigger role to those who have succeeded in the WJC, and that was the case with Lehtonen too. He continued the hot streak in half a dozen games, which included a road shutout against Tappara, the best team in the league. However, Jamie was there to take advantage of Kari’s return to normalcy. By the end of the month he was the starter again, solidifying his position by winning all six games in February and earning the SM-Liiga player of the month award.

When Lehtonen was given his chance again, he struggled. The team had an unbelievably streaky semester: From 12/27, they started with seven games without losses, then were left without victories in five, rebounded with eight consecutive wins and finally, lost all of the regular season’s six remaining games! Lehtonen regained the coaches’ trust with a couple of good performances, but that wasn’t enough to shake Ram. To the outside it looked like the team was in turmoil, and last year’s failures in timing the performance peak rang in every fan’s mind, especially with Kärpät set to face Jokerit in the the quarterfinals again. Little did we know.

SM-Liiga regular season: 23/56 GP, 13-5-2 (9th in wins), 4 SO (5th), 1.79 GAA (2nd), .941 SV% (1st), 30 S/GP

The Climax

If you have seen James Bond in action, you know how close many evil guys have come to put an end to his heroic deeds. If you watched the first games of the Jokerit-Kärpät series, you know how close Lehtonen’s breakthrough came to never happen. The team started with an important 6-2 victory at home, finding new scorers in Tomek Valtonen and Jukka Voutilainen. We zoom to the beginning of the second game’s last period. Kärpät leads 2-1 at home. Ram had been rather shaky, and in the first minute Kärpät scores their third goal. The frustrated netminder shatters his stick against the pipes. That is where the caoch Raimo Summanen notices that Ram isn’t mentally cool enough to play right now and decides to replace him with the stoic figure, but Lehtonen can’t lead the team to victory: Kärpät wins 5-3 and ties the series.

At this point it was unclear which goalie would be a gamble. Jokerit went with Lehtonen, never having to regret the decision. He shut out Kärpät in Helsinki, guaranteeing his team a priceless 2-1 lead in the series. The opponents proved unable to stop Jokerit in the fourth game, and so Kari and his teammates advanced to the semifinals against HPK with a 5-1 road victory. The prospect of the series was tasty: Lehtonen facing not only the most dangerous forward lines in the league, but also another young goalie carrying a huge burden, Joni Puurula. The first game wasn’t easy for the youngsters, but they both rebounded and can be most proud of their performance in the rest of the games. The series wasn’t decided between the pipes, but Jokerit were the ones to come out of tough situations victorious and made it to the finals games 3-4, 3-2, 3-2, 1-0.

The silver medalist team of 2001, Tappara, had won the regular season and was considered the stronger team of the two. The first game of the series was very much like the one against HPK, both Lehtonen and Thomas Draper, over fifteen years older than his adversary, struggling. Tappara’s Jaakko Uhlbäck scored the game-winning 5-4 goal in the 55th minute of the game. Still, Lehtonen had proven his ability to recover and retained the coaches’ trust. After Pasi Puistola had scored for Tappara in the third minute of the second game, Kari kept his net untouched for over 140 minutes game time. A shutout in the third game gave the team a chance to win the championship in front of the home crowd. They didn’t miss it. “We got the upper hand of Jokerit halfway through the game, but not of Lehtonen”, said the Tappara coach Jukka Rautakorpi when commenting on the 2-1 defeat. The goalie with a gold medal had saved 36 shots.

SM-Liiga playoffs: 11/12 GP, 8-2-0, 3 SO (1st), 1.73 GAA (2nd), .940 SV% (2nd), 29 S/GP

The Aftermath

Lehtonen returned from the SM-Liiga awards gala with more loot than he could carry.

Jari Kurri Trophy for the most valuable player in playoffs
Urpo Ylönen Trophy for the best goalie
SM-Liiga first all-stars goalie
Kalen Kannu for a player distinguished in the national teams

His teammates Vladimir Machulda (8+4), Frank Banham (8+2) and Tom Koivisto (3+8) were noteworthy challengers for the MVP thanks to their priceless goals, but when things looked the bleakest, Lehtonen’s contribution to the team was the most important. The race for the Vezina equivalent was closer than in ages: None of the best candidates had played a full season. Ultimately, Lehtonen with a total of 34 games came out on top over Ram (39), the TPS duo Fredrik Norrena (36) and Antero Niittymäki (31) and the Kärpät mid-season acquisition Tim Thomas (35). Kari would have been the undisputed rookie of the year as well if the previous season’s backup duties hadn’t rendered him ineligible.

Soon after his campaign in Jokerit had come to a happy end, Lehtonen joined the national team which was preparing for the upcoming world championships. In the Karjala Tournament he became the youngest goalie to play for the national team in the modern times of Finnish hockey. A sweet shutout already loomed in the distance, but the team stopped playing in a 5-0 lead over the Czechs and Kari surrendered thrice. Nevertheless, a good showing earned him the mascot’s job as the team’s third goalie and Niittymäki was left out. Norrena had already secured the backup’s post earlier in the season and the starter came from the NHL.

Lehtonen didn’t dress even once in the tournament and those who did failed to donate him a medal. A well-deserved summer vacation awaited him back home, and now he makes his plans for tomorrow as a future Thrasher. Uncertainty may continue until the signing deadline on 8/15. In Jokerit he can look forward to as many games as he can play as well as the completion of the military service, while careful grooming for his destiny awaits him in the NHL organization. Right now the sun is shining high in his sky, be it the sky of Helsinki or Atlanta.