Just to be playing hockey again free of the mental health issues and addiction battles that have weighed him down in previous seasons thrilled Robin Lehner. A 35-save shutout in his first start for the Islanders was almost too good an ending to believe.
The 27-year-old former Sabre became the first goalie in franchise history to record a shutout in his Islanders’ debut in Monday afternoon’s 4-0 win over the Sharks before 8,790 at Barclays Center.
“I just tried to move forward here but it’s a little bit special,” said Lehner, who signed a one-year, $1.5-million deal then publicly detailed all his personal demons on the first day of training camp. “I felt real good back in the game again, doing what I love, perfectly healthy, feeling better than I’ve ever felt.”
Lehner was the bedrock in an overall solid team performance by the Islanders (2-1-0), who next open a four-game road trip on Saturday night in Nashville.
The power play was 1-for-4, with captain Anders Lee opening the scoring at 14:34 of the second period. The penalty kill was 4-for-4 and the Islanders, looking more and more comfortable in Barry Trotz’s system, were airtight defensively, blocking 23 shots as they held the Sharks’ dynamic defense duo of Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns to a combined four shots.
Martin Jones made 26 saves for the Sharks (1-2-0).
“You can tell it’s there,” Lee said of the Islanders’ defensive structure after the team allowed an NHL-worst 293 goals last season. “Every guy takes pride in it. The guys on the ice and the goalie. Everybody is pulling the rope right now.”
“I think you had everybody in the right place,” added Trotz, who altered his lineup by inserting defenseman Scott Mayfield for Luca Sbisa to give him the optimal three lefty-right pairs and put former Penguin Tom Kuhnhackl in for Tanner Fritz. “To me, it was a team win. But it always starts from the net on out.”
Trotz started Thomas Greiss in both the season-opening 2-1 overtime win at Carolina and Saturday night’s 4-3 loss to the Predators in the home opener as Lehner worked to adjust his technique with director of goaltending Mitch Korn and goalie coach Piero Greco.
The changes in how Lehner plays the angles, how he positions his body and how he holds his arms when facing shooters may seem subtle but are really giant adjustments to a goalie.
“I’ve been pretty scrambly before,” said Lehner, who came into Monday’s game with an 0-4-0 lifetime record against the Sharks with a 3.33 goals-against average. “The goalie coaches are really trying to structure me up a bit. When you change, you’ve always got to think about it. When you’re thinking, the puck is too fast.”
Lehner made several strong saves as the Sharks got to his doorstep, including one on Joe Pavelski early in the first period and then on Timo Meier’s power-play chance early in the second period. Tomas Hertl also got to the crease on the Sharks’ second power play of the second period.
Mayfield made it 2-0 at 5:16 of the third period on a delayed penalty and that became 3-0 at 13:02 after Valtteri Filppula, who has started his Islanders career with a three-game point streak, took the puck from Erik Karlsson and fed Matt Martin at the crease. Casey Cizikas capped the scoring with a shorthanded, empty-net goal.