CHICAGO — Fond feelings for goalie Robin Lehner still abound among the Islanders. Which is why his former teammates are rooting for him to get the start for the Blackhawks on Friday night at United Center.
“I’m going to be excited to play against him,” Mathew Barzal said. “Hopefully we do get him. He’s an amazing goaltender. When he was here, he was kind of an older brother to me. I’m definitely hoping to score on him, that’s for sure.”
Coming back from the three-day NHL holiday break, the Islanders will open a three-game road trip against the struggling Blackhawks, who are on a 3-5-1 skid after Monday night’s 7-1 loss to the visiting Devils. Lehner relieved Corey Crawford in that game and started three of the Blackhawks’ previous four games.
He is 9-6-4 with a 2.86 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage after signing a one-year, $5 million deal with the Blackhawks following failed contract negotiations with the Islanders. Lehner was a Vezina Trophy finalist as he went 25-13-5 with a 2.13 GAA and a .930 save percentage in his one season with the Islanders.
Lehner, who detailed his struggles with addiction and mental-health issues on the first day of training camp last season, and Thomas Greiss shared the Jennings Trophy as the Islanders allowed the fewest goals in the NHL.
“That’ll be fun,” Casey Cizikas said of possibly facing Lehner. “He’s a great guy and he was awesome with us. I’m sure you’ll hear his laugh once or twice throughout the game, which will be awesome. It’s something we’re looking forward to. He’s a heck of a goalie so it’ll be a good test.”
Facing Lehner won’t be the only test for the Islanders.
Per collective-bargaining agreement guidelines, the Islanders cannot gather as a group and fly to Chicago until Friday morning, though the players who did not stay on Long Island for the league’s break had the option of flying on their own and arriving on Thursday.
The Islanders, coming off a 3-2 loss to the Blue Jackets on Monday night at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum, are scheduled to have a morning skate at the arena, but it’s never easy to travel and play on the same day. Other than this post-break scenario, the only time it’s usually done is in the preseason.
“It’s tough. I’ve done it a few times in the preseason,” Barzal said. “At the end of the day, we’re in the NHL, we’re in Chicago and I’m going to be excited for it. You’ve just got to mentally get over the fact that you’re flying that day.”
Defenseman Johnny Boychuk said the physical and mental preparation done over the holiday break will be crucial against the Blackhawks.
“The day before, or the morning of, find somewhere to get on the bike or go for a long walk,” Boychuk said. “You haven’t been on the ice for two or three days, you have to do something to keep your body in tune. In warmups, you have to fly because you have to get your legs back.”