CHICAGO — Robin Lehner walked into United Center on Friday wanting nothing more than to shut out the Islanders.
“There’s a few guys there that are not allowed to score,” the Blackhawks goalie said to a larger-than-usual group of media members surrounding his dressing room stall after the morning skate.
Competitiveness aside, Lehner still feels an attachment to the Islanders’ organization and the fan base after one storybook season on Long Island.
The teams resumed play Friday after the three-day NHL holiday break, giving Lehner his first chance to face the Islanders since agreeing to a one-year, $5 million deal with the Blackhawks.
“It’s kind of a special feeling,” Lehner said. “Islanders fans are very special. You just see it with the whole team. It’s a little bit more intimate relationship than other teams. They supported me from Day 1.”
Lehner was a Vezina Trophy finalist as he went 25-13-5 with a 2.13 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage. He detailed his struggles with addiction and mental-health issues on the first day of training camp and went on to share the Jennings Trophy with Thomas Greiss as the Islanders allowed the fewest goals in the NHL.
When contract negotiations with Lehner were unsuccessful — the Islanders are believed to have offered a two-year, $10 million deal, but Lehner has said the offer was pulled after he asked for time to think about it — Semyon Varlamov was signed to a four-year, $20 million deal.
“The turnaround the team had, the turnaround for myself personally, I just thought it was a really good all-around year,” Lehner said. “There’s a lot of really good guys in that locker room, a lot of good players. It’s one of the tightest groups I’ve played on, so it was a fun year. The guys in the organization, the coaches, they made it a really easy year for me.”
But just as Lehner said his season with the Islanders had an impact on him, his impact on the team still is being felt.
“I think he left a mark of not taking anything for granted,” Anders Lee said. “He’s overcome a lot. He succeeded a lot and has done a lot of good things, not just on the ice but with the awareness he’s arisen and the openness about talking about things.
“You look at him and it makes you think about how important every individual guy is and how everyone has their own things going on and how close-knit we can really become as a team. I think he came in and he brought a lot of people closer.”
Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said Lehner has fit in just as smoothly with his new team.
“He brings some personality,” Colliton said. “He’s sitting in the players’ lounge talking hockey with the guys. He talks a lot about the right things, how we need to play to win. It’s been nice having him.”
Lehner, 28, entered Friday’s game with a 9-6-4 record, a 2.86 GAA and a .924 save percentage while splitting time with Corey Crawford.
But the Blackhawks, with five players on injured reserve and mired in last place in the Central Division, will have to have a somewhat miraculous turnaround in the second half for Lehner to reach the playoffs for a second straight season.
“I definitely feel like I’ve played some really good hockey this year,” he said. “It’s just a different kind of hockey. But I’ve felt good now for a few years. It keeps building. I keep getting better with age.”