The Islanders got to where they are with defense and goaltending, the latter being a team strength from the beginning with Robin Lehner as Goalie No. 1 and Thomas Greiss as Goalie No. 1A.
Now we might get to see just how valuable that depth and balance is down the regular-season stretch, because 1A might have to drop the “A” for a bit.
On Tuesday night at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders won a game that was far more interesting than it should have been – a 5-4 shootout victory over Senators, the worst team in the NHL.
The good news for them was that it moved them into a first-place with the Capitals, and gave coach Barry Trotz his 800th career victory.
But the bigger news came with 4:40 remaining in regulation time, when Lehner left the game after apparently hitting his head on the ice upon being bowled over by the Sens’ Brady Tkachuk.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau took advantage by scoring the tying goal, which initially was ruled good, then waved off after a discussion among the officials, then reinstated after a video review.
It was decided that the Islanders’ Brock Nelson had driven Tkachuk into Lehner. “I didn’t think I pushed him into Robin,” Nelson said later. “I think he kind of made contact there, so it’s tough.”
Captain Anders Lee acknowledged that it was a “tight” decision one way or the other. “He’s not necessarily pushing him,” Lee said of Nelson, “but he’s not necessarily holding him back, either.”
None of it mattered more than the aftermath. Lehner was tended to by medical personnel, left the ice and presumably will need to pass some tests this week and perhaps beyond before being allowed to return to action.
Even before that, Lehner had had an eventful couple of days. On Sunday, Trotz yanked him from a game against the Flyers after he allowed three goals on 13 shots over 28 minutes and 13 seconds.
So it said something about how Trotz views Lehner – and about how well Lehner has played this year – that the coach went right back to him against the Sens.
The results were mixed. Lehner certainly was not at his sharpest against the hapless Senators, but it appeared it would be enough to eke out a regulation victory before the big collision changed everything.
Now what? Lehner still is the favorite to be the No. 1 goalie heading into the playoffs, but what if he needs some time to recover and Greiss shines, as he did upon replacing Lehner on Tuesday night?
The point is that the Islanders have flexibility to change plans if necessary. That’s a good thing.
“I mean, our goaltender depth is incredible,” Lee said. “Up until lately I think they’ve been top two in save percentage and all that stuff. It’s a testament to not only how well they’re playing but the confidence we have in front of them.
“You obviously never want to see someone go down. Hopefully, Robin’s is a just-for-tonight type of thing and he’ll be ready to go.”
Greiss said he is ready if needed. “I feel good about my game,” he said. “Whatever happens, happens.”
He said that going into a game cold late in the third period is “not my favorite thing, but I wasn’t too worried about it. If I have to jump in, I’ll jump in and see what happens.”
Lehner has been one of the best stories in the NHL, shining after signing a one year, $1.5 million contract with the Islanders, and going public about his battles with addiction and mental health.
On Tuesday night, he was facing the team he spent his first five seasons with, and against which he is 7-0-3 in his career. He came within 4 ½ minutes of making that 8-0-3, but the Islanders are fine with Greiss getting the “W.”
After back-to-back regulation losses for the first time since early December, they needed one goalie or another to get a “W.” Take your pick.