Everybody loves a good Cinderella story. The plucky underdog becomes the belle of the ball, turns some heads, makes some noise and inspires a few good tales. And Robin Lehner has certainly done that.
Throughout the campaign, the New York Islanders netminder has penned one of the best narratives of the season. Cast off by the Buffalo Sabres and recovering from addiction, Lehner spent the summer focusing on his mental health and looking for his next opportunity. He found it in New York and, teaming with Thomas Greiss under the tutelage of goaltending guru Mitch Korn, Lehner transformed into a William M. Jennings Trophy-winning netminder with numbers that support a case for Vezina Trophy contention. He posted a .930 save percentage, second-best among all keepers with 41 games played, while his 2.13 goals-against average better than all but that of Dallas Stars netminder Ben Bishop. Lehner also had his share of perfection, registering six shutouts this season.
But the thing about Cinderella stories is the clock is supposed to strike midnight at some point. The dress is supposed to return to tatters and reality is supposed to come flooding in. We’re not sure the version of the fairy tale with which Robin Lehner is familiar, however, because it appears the Islanders goaltender hasn’t received the memo about that whole carriage-turning-into-a-pumpkin thing with the second season underway.
In the first-round tilt between the Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins, the belief was that the series would hinge on Lehner’s play, with some of the mind that a battle-tested, star-studded attack that includes Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel would shatter the veneer of the NHL’s best comeback story. If that’s supposed to be the case, though, it hasn’t happened yet.
Through three games, each of which the Islanders have won, Lehner is the story for all the right reasons. In Game 1, the 27-year-old turned in an outstanding 41-save performance, including three overtime stops, that kept New York in it long enough for Josh Bailey to find the winner. In Game 2, Lehner was a stud, stopping 32 of 33 shots in a 3-1 Islanders victory. And he again was excellent Sunday, turning aside 25 of 26 in a 4-1 Islanders victory. The big picture? Lehner has mustered a .951 SP and 1.62 GAA, and his play has pushed Pittsburgh to the brink of their first first-round exit since the 2014-15 campaign.
There will be those, of course, who attempt to discredit Lehner’s numbers or claim he’s the product of a system, as if he’s playing behind the New Jersey Devils’ early-aughts trap defense and that we’re in the midst of the Dead Puck Era. That couldn’t be further from the truth, though. The league had its highest average goals per game, 3.01, in more than a decade this season, and that’s the second-highest mark since the 2005-06 campaign and the fourth-highest in the past 25 years. Furthermore, this Islanders’ defensive structure is decidedly not the same as the smothering, suffocating New Jersey outfits that turned each game into a slog. Through three games, New York has surrendered 68.2 shot attempts, 35 shots, 32.9 scoring chances and 13.5 high-danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes at five-a-side. Respectively, those are the second-worst, third-worst, second-worst and second-worst marks among all playoff teams.
And that has made Lehner the busiest goaltender in the playoffs so far. Among all netminders to appear this post-season, from relief keepers to every-game starters, Lehner has faced the second-most shots against (35), the fourth-most high-danger shots (9.3) and has the fourth-highest expected goals against (2.72), which takes into account the difficulty of the stops he’s had to make.
Yet, Lehner has been more than equal to the task. At 5-on-5, Lehner’s .964 SP ranks behind only Mike Smith and Aaron Dell, the latter only appearing in relief this post-season. Lehner’s 1.40 goals saved above average, which takes into account how he’s fared when measured against a league-average keeper, is better than all but Dell and Smith. And while some might try to suggest that Lehner has managed to post such numbers because he’s been untested, take into account that Natural Stat Trick lists Lehner’s average shot distance as the second-closest of all playoff keepers.
There’s not even any truth to the claim that Lehner is the beneficiary of the Islanders shutting down the Penguins’ top stars and nullifying their ability to generate any opportunities. Kessel has 13 shots. Malkin has nine. Crosby has six. That’s 28 combined shots, only two of which have found daylight behind Lehner. And between Patric Hornqvist, Kris Letang and Jake Guentzel, each of whom are leaned upon for offensive contributions, there’s not been a single goal on 29 combined shots. The Penguins and their top talents are getting to good areas. Lehner has just been better.
So, where does the Cinderella story end? We can’t possibly know yet. But what we do know is this: if or when New York wins a fourth game, which history indicates they are near certain to do, Lehner will have added yet another chapter to his fairy tale season and help the Islanders punch their ticket to the second round for the second time in a quarter century.
(All advanced statistics via Natural Stat Trick)
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