Robin Lehner was not sure precisely what time the text would arrive on Tuesday.
“It’s [always] different,” the goaltender said after the Islanders’ morning practice. “Might come at 4, might come at 7. You never know.”
But eventually, he would hear from coach Barry Trotz about whether he will get the nod for Game 1 Wednesday night against the Penguins. If not, Thomas Greiss will.
It would be a surprise if it were not Lehner, but it also would be a surprise if there were not twists and turns in the goalie narrative if the Islanders mount a lengthy playoff run.
This is the path Trotz has chosen this season, to great success, and one that could define what the Isles accomplish over the next two weeks – or two months.
Trotz has pushed the right buttons. But now is when it matters most, and there is no decision that matters more in the playoffs than goalies, especially for a team without a clear No. 1.
The good news is that Lehner and Greiss both have excelled, helping the Islanders lead the league in fewest goals allowed, and also that they trust Trotz to do the right thing.
“One hundred percent,” Lehner said. “He’s been going with gut feeling all year about that stuff, but the thing is we both have been playing well.”
Said Trotz: “It’s good. That’s an advantage for us. There are certain teams that know there’s a big drop-off when their No. 1 goes down, and there’s really no drop-off.”
Trotz has been down this road before, notably this time last season, when he made a pair of decisions bolder than anything he might do with Lehner and Greiss.
He began the playoffs with young, untested Philipp Grubauer in net for the Capitals against the Blue Jackets over former Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby, who had slumped down the stretch.
Washington promptly lost two overtime games at home. Trotz reinserted Holtby, who won, 3-2, in double overtime in Game 3. The Caps went on to win the Stanley Cup. So that worked out.
“The safe thing would have been to start Holts,” Trotz said recently. “That’s the easy decision, and then you [reporters] couldn’t question anything . . . That’s the great thing about being a fan. You don’t have to be accountable. Or media. You don’t have to be accountable. As a coach, you do.
“And if you choose wrong, they let you know, and if you choose right, everybody lets you know. That’s why it’s easy to be in everybody else’s seat. It was a difficult decision, trust me.”
Said Lehner, “That’s what he does. He has a good gut feeling. You give a struggling goalie his time to get back his game . . . It’s all about momentum. It’s all about performance, and he’s good about that.”
Because Lehner has started 43 games and Greiss 39, many who do not follow the team closely assume the goalies alternate, a notion that irks Lehner. In fact, their playing charts have been jagged.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen with me and Greisser, but I have a feeling it’s going to be the same way [as the regular season],” Lehner said. “You perform, you play. You don’t perform, you give the other guy a chance. That’s not splitting.”
Said Trotz: “We believe in both of them. That’s why there hasn’t been a lot of rhythm . . . It’s a week-to-week deal.”
Trotz said he “mostly” goes by his gut but also consults with his assistants. He said he would choose based on “who I feel gives us the best chance to win [Wednesday], and that might change for Game 2 and it might change for Game 3. I’ve done that all year.”
Now is when it really counts.