Islanders’ Robin Lehner shines after beating off-ice ‘demons’
Barry Trotz appreciates and respects what Robin Lehner has done for the New York Islanders in the first three games of their playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But the Islanders coach isn’t kidding when he says, “Playing goal for us is the easy thing.”
Lehner has stopped 98 shots and allowed only five goals while leading the Islanders to a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, but he has done so much more off the ice.
Before this season — his ninth in a decidedly unspectacular career until now — he wrote a lengthy essay for The Athletic. In it, he detailed his battle with alcohol and how he was drinking a case of beer a day “just to settle the demons in my mind.”
He also admitted to contemplating suicide, taking pills to sleep and experiencing a panic attack March 29, 2018, while tending goal for the Buffalo Sabres.
Since then, he found the strength to overcome his problems. He signed with the Islanders — his third team — and helped them earn 103 points this season while recording the best save percentage (.930) since he became a starting goaltender.
He has been in goal for only five career playoff games, all against the Penguins (including two losses in the 2013 Eastern Conference semifinals). But he’s 3 for 3 in this first-round series, stopping 98 of 103 shots.
“He’s been lights-out for us all year,” Islanders forward and former Penguin Tom Kuhnhackl said. “Every time we need a big save from him, he comes up. He’s so calm back there. He’s confident.”
He even redirected a puck with his head Sunday, saving what could have been a goal.
A puck went behind the net, caromed off the boards and into the air toward Lehner. All he could do was hit it with his head — much like what a soccer player would do — to keep it from landing near the crease.
“I couldn’t really get it with my arms,” said Lehner, who takes up a lot of crease space at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds. “It was coming toward the danger area, so I just tried to get it away.
“It must have happened a couple of times (in his career), but it was a good play.”
Trotz, who is in his first season with the Islanders, said he wasn’t around long enough to be closely involved in signing Lehner, who had a 14-26-9 record with the Sabres last season.
“I can’t take any credit,” Trotz said. “That was more of a Lou (Lamoriello, president and general manager) decision. But, obviously, just pure size and talent.”
Lehner credits his teammates for keeping the potentially potent Penguins offense under control.
“It’s a team effort. We care about each other, and we work for each other,” he said. “They’re going to have their spurts where they come hard, and they’re going to create.”
Trotz said nothing the playoffs can throw at Lehner compares to what he’s confronted and defeated off the ice.
“To me, Robin has done all the hard things,” he said. “The hard thing is he’s had to deal with a lot of off-ice issues. It takes a tremendous amount of character and toughness to do that, and he’s done that.
“No matter what he does in goal, I’m more proud of what he’s done off the ice. That’s been the real battle for him. Anybody who’s gone through it knows that. He’s tough as nails that way.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .