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Under Pressure: Robin Lehner

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

You can make a case for a ton of New York Islanders for the latest installment of “under pressure.”

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Three questions]

As discussed in a different post, Mathew Barzal faces serious pressure as the new face of the franchise after John Tavares‘ departure.

Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee enter 2018-19 on expiring contracts with a lot of money to gain or lose depending upon how they play, with no guarantee that they’ll be with the Islanders after this season (or even following the trade deadline).

Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz both have secured impressive, lengthy resumes of work in the NHL, yet their work with the Islanders will make an impact on their legacies regardless.

Robin Lehner probably has the most to win or lose overall, and could face a serious degree of difficulty, especially if Trotz can’t fix what was very much a broken Islanders defensive system from last season.

There are a number of factors that make this both a lot of pressure and a high-degree-of-difficulty challenge.

  • One shot.

Lehner received just a one-year, $1.5 million contract to prove himself. The Islanders didn’t make much of a commitment here, so it’s up to Lehner to show that they should bring him back.

  • No guarantee.

On a similar note, the Islanders don’t have a ton of incentive to keep throwing Lehner out there if he flames out, or merely struggles early on.

As much as Lehner stumbled during his final season with the Sabres, Thomas Greiss was even worse in 2017-18. That said, goalies are a difficult lot to forecast, so you never know if Greiss might put it together and land the top job.

(Consider how the Jets invested in Steve Mason last summer, only to see Connor Hellebuyck pass him totally by. It’s unlikely that Winnipeg expected Hellebuyck to be a Vezina finalist and expensive signing, yet that’s how the situation played out.)

  • Clock ticking, at least as a No. 1.

Lehner, 27, is running out of time and excuses. The edgy Swedish goalie has already played in 219 regular-season games (generating a solid-but-not-world-beating .915 career save percentage), and the Islanders rank as his third team. He hasn’t converted opportunities to the types of transcendent moments you want to see from a No. 1 goalie, as he’s appeared in just 49 minutes of playoff hockey during his career.

None of this is to say that Lehner is a failure, or cannot be a starting netminder.

After all, he was fighting off Craig Anderson in Ottawa before joining a Sabres team that has been abysmal for quite some time. Blaming Lehner totally is pretty silly with all of that in mind.

On the other hand, there are only 31 starting goalie jobs in the NHL. If Lehner flounders in 2018-19, he might not get a chance to land the top job at this level again, at least not for a while.

  • Tough task.

Getting adjusted to a new city, team, arena, and fan base is a lot for any player. It must be especially tough for a goalie, particularly since the Islanders could really struggle next season. Lehner may be asked to save the day on a regular basis, which isn’t the most reasonable request even for established starters.

  • Big disparity.

If Lehner shines, he could easily sign a robust contract. When a team believes it’s identified an answer in net, they almost always lock that guy up for multiple years and big dollars.

Falling short could suspend Lehner in limbo. He’ll enter his second consecutive contract year, depriving Lehner of the security pro athletes almost always crave.

Overall, this is a make-or-break year for Lehner, with a ton on the line.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Golden Knights chase Gibson, demolish Ducks

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Heading into Wednesday’s 5-0 win for the Golden Knights, you could see Vegas and Anaheim as two teams suffering through very different circumstances.

On one hand, John Gibson was frequently bailing out Anaheim despite the Ducks allowing waves of scoring chances. Conversely, the Golden Knights fired shot after shot, yet found themselves on the wrong end of the scoreboard far too often to start 2018-19.

Well, the Golden Knights got to Gibson (and Ryan Miller) early and often on Wednesday, and it didn’t really require a barrage of shots … even if the dour Ducks defense sure seemed overwhelmed as ever.

Alex Tuch gave Vegas a 1-0 lead heading into the first intermission, but the Golden Knights truly shot as accurately as archers during the second period. They added two more goals to end Gibson’s night early (three goals allowed, nine saves), and it didn’t stop there. As if to cement the notion that this wasn’t all Gibson’s fault, Cody Eakin‘s second goal of the night looked alarmingly easy considering that it came shorthanded:

Sure, there were some odd moments, like Nick Holden receiving unlikely credit for this goal:

Perhaps Vegas receiving the bounces they haven’t enjoyed much this season (but practically bathed in during that magical 2017-18 campaign) amplified the score a bit, yet the Golden Knights seemed like the faster, more dangerous team when the game was actually in reach. They made it look easy at times against a Ducks team that honestly seems pretty hapless against oft-criticized head coach Randy Carlyle.

As you might expect in a lopsided contest, there were some promising overall developments for Vegas, ones that the Golden Knights likely hope to carry over beyond this one-sided affair.

While Gibson’s looked like his best self from last season much of this year (but not tonight), Marc-Andre Fleury has failed to channel his magic from 2017-18 on most evenings this season. He was dynamic when he needed to be against the Ducks, however, stopping all 29 shots for the 51st shutout of his NHL career.

The Golden Knights must be heartened by the work they saw from Max Pacioretty, too. “Patches” came into Wednesday with a paltry two goals and zero assists in 14 games, including a five-game pointless streak, prompting some to compare him unfavorably to Tomas Tatar already. One game isn’t going to keep this from being a tough start. Even so, two assists (on the first two goals of the game, when the match was still in dispute) could really boost the winger’s confidence.

Vegas still has some work to do, and Anaheim remains ahead of the Golden Knights following this result. The Golden Knights can take quite a bit from this win nonetheless, including some comfort in seeing that their efforts can yield results, from goals to victories.

Meanwhile, the Ducks get another reminder that Gibson can’t save their tails every night.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Rantanen, Avs beat Bruins in battle of NHL’s best lines

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Three Stars

1. Mikko Rantanen

Tonight’s game between the Avalanche and Bruins featured a heavyweight battle between possibly the two best top lines in the NHL, and those trios delivered.

While David Pastrnak (one goal and one assist) ranked among the B’s who contributed, the Avs really had no answer for Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog.

All three of those Colorado stars scored at least a goal in the Avs’ 6-3 win, yet Rantanen stood tallest with a goal and two assists. With that three-point performance, Rantanen now holds a pretty comfortable NHL points lead at 29 (MacKinnon, Patrice Bergeron, and Connor McDavid are tied at second with 26).

If you’re outrageous and need another nugget, consider that both of Rantanen’s assists were first ones, so he also racked up primary points on Wednesday.

2. Cody Eakin

The trio of Eakin (two goals), Alex Tuch (one goal, one assist), and Max Pacioretty (two assists) loomed large during Vegas’ dominant 5-0 win, doing their damage when the game was still within reach.

You could make an argument for his linemates – Tuch’s goal was the GWG, for one thing – but Eakin grabbed two goals, including a matter-of-fact backhander during a shorthanded rush.

As much as the Golden Knights must miss Paul Stastny, Eakin has been heating up lately. This impressive performance extends the former Dallas Stars center’s point streak to fie games (four goals, two assists).

3. Corey Crawford

OK, this is a tough one. After all, Marc-Andre Fleury‘s shutout (29 saves) features one more save than the one Corey Crawford authored (28 saves). “MAF” made some dazzling saves to maintain that goose egg, too.

It’s nice to spread the wealth to multiple teams in the three stars, and beyond that, the margin of error was different. While Fleury was maintaining a shutout, Crawford couldn’t make a mistake, as the Blackhawks only managed one goal in that 1-0 victory against the Blues. Maybe Chicago would have offered more if forced, although the Blackhawks’ 18 SOG don’t inspire much confidence.

The sheer meaning of Crawford’s shutout pushes it over the top.

Most immediately, it ended Chicago’s eight-game losing streak.

More personally, Crawford managed his first shutout in more than a year, and in doing so powered new head coach Jeremy Colliton to his first win as an NHL head coach.

Was Fleury’s shutout objectively better? Maybe, so consider him 3a to Crawford’s 3b if it’s really important to you.

Injuries

Highlights

Rantanen definitely helped MacKinnon score the game-winner:

Jake DeBrusk deserves three stars consideration thanks to his two goals in a losing effort for Boston:

Little Flower? MAFjr?

Nick Holden also had a two-point night, thanks in part to this odd tally:

Factoids

Blake Wheeler kept his point streak going, even if it was *yawn* just one assist. Slacker.

MAF is moving up the ranks.

Scores

CHI 1 – STL 0
WPG 3 – WSH 1
COL 6 – BOS 3
VGK 5 – ANA 0

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Which wrestling move did Jets’ Morrissey use on Capitals’ Oshie?

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Winnipeg Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey‘s takedown on T.J. Oshie of the Washington Capitals inspires some key questions:

  • Should there have been a penalty?
  • Should there be a suspension involved?

Former NHL player Jeff O’Neill believes that Morrissey’s infraction paralleled that of Michael Matheson on Elias Pettersson, which drew a two-game suspension earlier this season.

Let’s look at them side-by-side:

All of those questions pale in comparison to the burning one, though: what kind of professional wrestling move most resembles what Morrissey did to Oshie?

If you’ve spent time on Hockey Twitter, you’ll realize that there’s a remarkable convergence between hockey fans and fans of pro wrestling, whether it be WWE or the days when WWE was the WWF.

Personally, I was taken aback by comparisons to the DDT, which was (of course) made famous by Jake “The Snake” Roberts. I put it closer to “The Rock Bottom,” which was – naturally – administered by The Rock before he starred in every big-budget action film in existence.

There were some lively replies, with people mentioning “The Sidewalk Slam” (that could be the ticket) and a hurricanrana (I strongly disagree). What say you, PHT readers? I think we can all agree that it’s crucial that we get this right.

Oh yeah, and the Jets beat the Capitals 3-1 on Wednesday, while Washington is experiencing some injury worries for Braden Holtby and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blackhawks blank Blues, end eight-game losing streak

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The St. Louis Blues hit some posts. Vladimir Tarasenko lost a tooth and thwarted an empty-net goal. But, for all their efforts, the Blues couldn’t score against Corey Crawford.

Instead, the Blackhawks won 1-0 on Wednesday, ending an eight-game losing streak (five under Joel Quenneville, three under Jeremy Colliton). This was a significant effort for a few reasons beyond the obvious need to get back in the win column:

  • 33-year-old Colliton gets his first win as an NHL head coach.
  • Crawford stopped all 28 shots for his first shutout since November of 2017.
  • Remember when Brent Seabrook was the butt of a few jokes? Well, he earned some retribution in this one, scoring the game’s only goal, with some help from Jay Bouwmeester, another occasionally hard-luck, expensive defenseman:

It was a low-event game overall, with the Blues generating a significant SOG advantage of 28-19, but they couldn’t solve Crawford. This was a painful evening for Tarasenko and others, sometimes literally:

The Blackhawks improve to 7-8-4 for 18 points in 19 games, remaining second-to-last in the Central Division. St. Louis continues to look up at Chicago and every other team in the Central, as the Blues’ record slips to 6-7-3 (15 points in 16 games).

As the Blackhawks adjust to a new head coach, it’s tough to shake the impression that the Blues might be teetering toward a similar change of direction. Fair or not, letdowns like being shut out by a shaky Chicago defense (albeit with an on-task Crawford) will not help Mike Yeo’s case.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.