DETROIT — The relief on Anders Lee’s face was palpable on Tuesday. He got a piece of Travis Hamonic’s shot — a waist-high tip just after Wild forward Nino Niederreiter appeared to deflect it — and it sailed past Devan Dubnyk to give the Isles a 2-1 lead.
Things didn’t feel as desperate for the 25-year-old Lee last season, when the puck seemed to find him from his post in front of the opposition’s net. When Lee, unfairly sent down to start the 2014-15 season, returned two weeks into the season, he quickly became the Isles’ second clutch goal-scorer behind John Tavares.
Lee’s 20 even-strength goals were among the top 30 in the NHL a season ago. His goal Tuesday was his fourth at even strength this season and seventh total, both numbers that would indicate something is working for a player the Islanders envisioned (and still do) as a crucial piece to their offense.
Except the only thing wrong with Lee is that the puck isn’t going in. He’s recorded 125 shots on goal this season entering Saturday’s game with the Red Wings; Lee’s 5.6 shooting percentage is well off last season’s 12.7 percent success rate.
So he’s shooting the puck as much as ever. He’s playing roughly the same amount as ever, including getting regular work the past month on the top power-play unit.
“It’s been incredibly frustrating,” Lee said. “There’s nothing to do except keep working and keep going to the spots where I’ve had success.”
Lee’s work ethic and willingness to take the abuse a forward gets when parking himself in front of an opposing goaltender are the main reasons why Jack Capuano doesn’t have any issues with Lee. The healthy scratchings of Games 6 and 7 in last season’s playoff series are long gone — Capuano and his staff felt Lee had hit a wall, and it’s easy to forget that he had just two goals in his final 13 games last season after scoring 23 in the first 63.
It seems to be simple bad luck right now for Lee, whose ability to deflect pucks is another reason he’s been such a reliable goal scorer. Perhaps Tuesday’s tip will turn the tide when the Islanders need him most.
Tavares reminisces at All-Stars
Maybe a bit of a surprise to hear what part of All-Star weekend John Tavares enjoyed most, outside of winning the prestigious accuracy challenge.
“I talked a bit with Nicklas Backstrom,” Tavares said earlier this week. “We talked a lot about the playoff series with them last year, how intense it was, how close it was. We were matched up a lot that series and it was fun to talk about how it went from his side.”
Tavares and Backstrom, the Caps’ center and criminally underrated star, were teammates on the Metro Division squad in Nashville last weekend and may yet see each other again this spring in the postseason. They each had overtime winners, Tavares in Game 3 and Backstrom in Game 4, in the epic seven-game battle.
“He’s such a great player, for me he’s the most underrated guy in the league,” Tavares said.
Thomas Hickey may be the smallest Islander at 5-foot-10ish, but his durability and willingness to take and give out hits is never in question. On Thursday in Washington, he crossed the line a bit, but earned plenty of smiles from his teammates.
He hit Caps forward Tom Wilson along the wall in the first period, delivering a WWE-worthy elbow to Wilson’s jaw — and followed it with a cross-check to Wilson’s head as the two fell to the ice. Wilson knocked Lubo Visnovsky from last season’s playoff series with a borderline hit and has become the bane of a handful of teams’ existence with his big hits and occasionally reckless play.
Hickey had some words with Wilson after the play, on which Hickey deservedly received an elbowing minor. “He has no problem throwing the puck in and hitting guys,” Hickey said after the game. “Sometimes you’re going to get hit, too. It’s not just target practice on D-men for him.”