Robin Lehner craves all the positives in his healthier and sober new life. Among them is being on the cusp of a postseason run in which he might be the No. 1 goalie.
The Islanders can clinch their first playoff berth since 2016 by beating the Sabres on Saturday night at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum. That seems apt for Lehner, who believes he has escaped all the negativity that surrounded him in Buffalo, particularly last season.
“It’s absolutely unbelievable, such good feelings,” said Lehner (23-12-5, 2.22 goals-against average, .926 save percentage), who made 33 saves as the Islanders rallied for a 5-4 win over the Jets in Winnipeg on Thursday night. That allowed Lehner to match his career high in victories.
“It’s a different feeling this year in general,” he said. “We’re having fun. It’s a positive atmosphere. It’s not surrounded by negativity. That was one of the hard things when I was in Buffalo, just this cloud and atmosphere of negativity.”
The Islanders’ magic number is two, meaning any combination of points gained by them or lost by the ninth-place Canadiens — who will play at Winnipeg on Saturday night — that adds up to two will clinch a berth for the Isles.
Lehner, 27, signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Islanders after the Sabres made him an unrestricted free agent by not extending a qualifying offer. He went 14-26-9 with a 3.01 GAA and a .908 save percentage last season while battling addictions and mental-health issues. Now he is the Islanders’ nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for perseverance, dedication and sportsmanship.
The Sabres have not made the playoffs since 2011 and Lehner has played in only two NHL playoff games, with the Senators in 2013. He has split time this season with Thomas Greiss, and coach Barry Trotz has not indicated whether he will pick one as a playoff starter.
Lehner wasn’t coming to a sure thing with the Islanders, who were even more of a defensive mess than the Sabres last season, allowing an NHL-worst 293 goals. But Lehner was encouraged in early talks with new president and general manager Lou Lamoriello and the newly hired Trotz.
He had no qualms about coming into the New York media market, which not every athlete can handle.
“No, Buffalo prepared me,” Lehner said. “It couldn’t be any worse. Buffalo would prepare me to go to Toronto. It was so bad there sometimes. You would walk out to games and the game hadn’t started and people are already booing. It’s an incredibly passionate fan base and they’re filling that building, but it can be miserable in that rink.
“Everyone talks the Toronto media, and Toronto is the toughest city in the league to play in, don’t get me wrong,” Lehner added, clarifying that he wants to see his former teammates do well. “But Buffalo is not easy to play in. The media is incredibly hard. I’ve been in that negative spiral. I’ve been caught in it for a couple of years. It’s really tough and you start to lose perspective. I’ve moved on. I don’t care what anyone in Buffalo says anymore.”