If you were to rank the many surprising stories that have combined to make this such an eye-opener of an Islanders season, you would come across some pretty stiff competition. A very good suggestion, though, for entry No. 1 would be goalie Robin Lehner, with fellow goaltender Thomas Greiss possibly 1-A.
What had figured to be one of the team’s serious weaknesses has become a heady two-way strength. Still, Lehner stands out in his own way. More than one way.
He is the ace of the staff, strong again Tuesday night, making 30 saves in a 2-1 overtime win, hearing chants of “Rob-in!” at Barclays Center during a stellar stretch on a Blues second-period power play.
“He was the reason, I think, we won tonight,” said Jordan Eberle, who scored the Islanders’ goal in regulation. “He was seeing the puck well, made a lot of big saves.”
Among the many ways this Islanders team is unique is that there is no acknowledged, unquestioned, bona fide No. 1 goalie. There is no Martin Brodeur, Carey Price or Henrik Lundqvist — someone who expects to be in there for just about every game, except for a breather every now and again. At the very least, the choice between Lehner and Greiss is something for Barry Trotz to think about before every game, what with each having 13 wins.
“No, not every day, but sometimes,” the coach said after the morning skate, with a laugh that indicated he considers the situation more of a blessing than a burden.
That Lehner started Tuesday night was a sign that this is not the sort of win-and-you-stay-in rotation Trotz has had occasionally in the past. Greiss had been just about flawless Sunday against the top team in the National Hockey League, making 38 saves in a 5-1 victory over the Lightning. That was a huge momentum shifter for a team that was slumping. Yet it was not enough to earn Greiss another start, signaling that Lehner is the de facto No. 1, at least for now. Greiss is 1-A.
“That’s a team,” Lehner said after having beaten the Blues. “Greisser has played great for us this year. I think both me and Greiss are working really hard to get better, to make the playoffs. We had a hell of a game against Tampa and we had to follow that up.”
Lehner has slightly better statistics — 2.16 goals-against average and .928 save percentage to Greiss’ 2.62 and .918. Plus, he got hot when the team went on a tear (he has won nine of his past 10 decisions). “I feel like I’ve played good hockey since the beginning of the season,” Lehner said. “I’ve felt good. It’s getting better. We’re starting to find ourselves as a team, we’re playing better as a team.”
The important thing is, both goalies have done well and given the Islanders more than they could have imagined. True, both have benefited from the team’s overall emphasis on defense, and from the guidance of goaltending guru Mitch Korn and goalie coach Piero Greco.
But Lehner’s year is extra special, given his revelation on his first day as an Islander, at the opening of training camp. He acknowledged he has battled bipolar disorder and an addiction problem. It sure looks like he is winning.
“I’m proud of Robin. It’s out there, everybody knows what he has battled through. To me, that’s an absolute sign of strength,” Trotz said after the game. “If you’re not in a good place, you’re not going to have success, no matter what you do. He was able to do the right things and get himself in the right place. I think organizationally, we’ve given him lots of support, the guys in the room as well. What he has done is become the goaltender he is capable of becoming.”
What the goaltender also has done has turned himself, and his team, into a heck of a story.