PITTSBURGH — Barry Trotz and his coaching staff certainly put time and effort into the decision. But, in retrospect, the Islanders' coach knew he couldn’t go wrong.
Goalies, right or wrong, get the bulk of the credit or a majority of the blame for their team’s success or lack thereof in the playoffs and Robin Lehner was certainly a big part of the Islanders’ strong defensive efforts in the first three games of their first-round series that had them on the brink of a sweep in Game 4 on Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena.
The last of the Islanders’ six sweeps of a best-of-seven series came in the 1983 Stanley Cup Final against the Oilers.
Trotz opted to start Lehner over Thomas Greiss to start the playoffs after the two combined to share the Jennings Trophy for allowing an NHL-low 196 goals during the regular season. Lehner had played in just two NHL playoff games previously, both in a relief role, while Greiss started all 11 playoff games for the Islanders in 2016, the team’s last trip to the postseason when they won a round for the first time since 1993.
“I didn’t have any doubts,” Trotz said. “I was in probably a unique position. I don’t think I could’ve made a bad decision on that because they’ve both played extremely well. Robin didn’t have much experience, but Robin carries a confidence about him, just like Greisser does. I didn’t think that would be a problem at all. So I just gauged it with where we thought we might be toward the end of the year and made a decision and knew there was always a Plan B if you need it.”
Lehner compiled a 1.62 goals-against average and a .951 save percentage through the first three games against the Penguins, stopping 98 of 103 shots.
“He’s made some timely saves,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “You’ve got to give the Islanders credit. They’ve defended really hard and they’ve gotten a timely save when they needed it.”
Meanwhile, Penguins counterpart Matt Murray, who backstopped the team to Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, had a 3.33 GAA and a .902 save percentage through the first three games, stopping 92 of 102 shots.
“I don’t think it’s about one guy versus the next,” Sullivan said. “Has Matt made timely saves for us? Yes, he has. We’ve got to do a better job as a team.”
Still, in the Islanders’ 4-1 win in Game 3 at Pittsburgh, the Penguins, and Murray, could not hold a 1-0 lead after Garrett Wilson scored at 12:54 of the first period.
The Islanders led 2-1 just 90 seconds later after Jordan Eberle scored on a sharp-angle shot from the left as Murray did not hug the post and Brock Nelson then caught Murray too far to his right as he scored by keeping the puck on a two-on-one rush.
But Sullivan wasn’t the only one defending Murray’s performance.
“I think Matt Murray’s history and pedigree is very high,” Islanders center Mathew Barzal said. “He’s a big goalie and there’s not much net out there. It’s not like we’ve been scoring like crazy. We’ve had two-on-ones and we’ve gotten lucky on some rebounds. Pittsburgh has had some chances and missed the net. Robin has been a rock for us all year, the same with Greisser. But, in this room, it’s never Robin is better than Murray. It’s we’ve got a good goalie in here and we’ve got confidence in him and we know if we’re going to score goals on them we’ve got to beat a good goalie, too.”
Lehner faced a decreasing amount of shots in Games 1-3, from 44 to 33 to 26, as the Islanders seemingly improved with each game.
Still, Lehner said he thought the Penguins had more time in the offensive zone in Game 3 despite taking fewer shots. The Penguins’ adjustment was not throwing as many sharp-angle shots on Lehner, instead concentrating on trying to attack the crease.
“They look at the tape, we look at the tape and, every game, you plug some holes,” Lehner said. “It’s just the nature of how it works in the playoffs. You feel you’ve got to make a lot of adjustments.”
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