Robin Lehner’s turnaround powers surging Islanders

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EAST MEADOW, N.Y. — Just as news was breaking that he was the NHL’s “First Star of the Week,” New York Islanders goalie Robin Lehner was deflecting the individual praise and identifying the accomplishment as a team effort.

“It’s nice when you get recognized sometimes but when the team plays good there’s going to be personal success for people, too,” Lehner said after Monday’s practice. “We’re playing a helluva team game and it’s rewarding everyone.”

His teammates have certainly helped during the team’s five-game winning streak that has helped put them atop the Metropolitan Division. The Islanders have held their last three opponents — the Anaheim Ducks, Washington Capitals, and New Jersey Devils — to under 20 shots, which is the first time that’s happened since their 1977-78 NHL season, per Eric Hornick. They’ve also averaged 3.1 goals per game in January, up a tick from their average of 2.95 from October to New Year’s Eve.

Lehner, who detailed his mental health and addiction issues in an article for The Athletic in September, has helped the Islanders win 10 of his last 11 starts and leads all goaltenders with at least 25 appearances in even strength save percentage (.937). His crease partner, Thomas Greiss, has posted a .930 ESSV% in 26 games this season. The success in net has been improved this season thanks to the work of goaltending coach Piero Greco and Director of Goaltending Mitch Korn.

Greco’s work with Lehner opened the 27-year-old’s eyes to what he could be doing better in his own game, like simplifying it.

“I don’t move that much. It’s not very exciting in there. It’s not a lot of flashy saves,” Lehner said. “Them calming me down, teaching me a little bit on how to play my angles has opened up some potential that I have reading plays. Before maybe I’ve been moving a little bit too much, I’ve been scrambling a little bit too much; but a key part to my game that I feel is reading plays, being patient, and with them slowing all that stuff down it’s really bringing that out.”

Islanders head coach Barry Trotz noted that the play of both of his goalies is in part to Greco and Korn earning their trust and “connecting the dots” in their games that’s led to winning habits through 48 games. 

“When we do breakdown, it’s not necessarily all the saves but it’s when you make those saves and they’ve been making the saves at the right time,” he added.

The saves have been coming at the right times with the Islanders entering Tuesday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks after two straight shutouts and a streak of 132:53 without allowing a goal. 

Among Lehner’s improvements this season includes handling the puck, something that he categorized as “below par.”

“People talk a lot the last few games we haven’t let in many shots at net, but it’s also a lot of the work me and Greisser are doing in playing the puck,” he said. “People try to get pressure, they dump the puck in and we’ve been able to break it out fast and all of a sudden we’re in their zone. That just keeps adding to what we want to do as a team here.”

Before this run of form, there was a span from November to early December when success wasn’t coming Lehner’s way. While he’s felt great all season, a back injury and a six-start streak of losses preceded this success for the goaltender and his team. But getting back to being patient and simplifying things has vaulted the team up the standings and helped the netminder to a stunning first-half turnaround.

“There were a couple games [earlier in the season] where I played really good but didn’t get a result,” he said. “That’s kind of sticking with it. We keep working with the goalie coaches, believing the structure of our team will take our steps and turn it around. That’s what we done.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Toews powers Blackhawks, Petterson’s return, first place Isles

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Three Stars

1. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks. The Chicago Blackhawks are having an awful season, which has to be even more frustrating for them when you consider their superstars up front have been great all year. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane continued that on Sunday as both had five points in an 8-5 win over the Washington Capitals, continuing what has been one of the best individual seasons for Toews offensively in his career. Those five points for Toews included a hat trick. Just a shame for the Blackhawks it all happening during a season when everything around the top players has gone away.

2. Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks. Elias Pettersson has been a franchise-changing player for the Vancouver Canucks and has been one of the biggest reasons they are still in the Western Conference playoff race. He returned from injury on Sunday after missing more than two weeks and tallied two points, including his 23rd goal of the season early in the first period to open the scoring. He also assisted on the game-tying goal mid-way through the third period.  He is rolling toward the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year and nobody is even close him in this rookie class.

3. Cal Clutterbuck, New York Islanders. The New York Islanders remained in first place thanks to their win over the Anaheim Ducks and the Washington Capitals’ loss to the Blackhawks on Sunday. They are not only in first place, but they actually have a three-point lead over the rest of the pack and are top-five team in the league in total points in the standings. They have now won five games in a row and 15 of their past 18. Cal Clutterbuck had the big game for the Islanders on Sunday with a pair of first period goals.

Highlights of the Night

It took Nino Niederreiter just 30 seconds to score his first goal as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday night. Then he scored another later in the period as the Hurricanes went on to rout the Edmonton Oilers.

It was not a great game for goalies in Chicago on Sunday afternoon, but we do need to give some love to these two saves by Blackhawks goalie Collin Delia.

Robin Lehner stopped all 19 shots he faced for the now first-place New York Islanders.

Factoids

  • Darcy Kuemper is one of four goalies without a regular loss since the start of the new calendar year. He improved to 5-0-2 since Jan. 1 with the Arizona Coyotes’ win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday evening. [NHL PR]
  • Nino Niederreiter’s two goals on Sunday were more than Victor Rask, the player he was traded for this past week, scored for the Carolina Hurricanes all season. [@SaraCivian]
  • Andrei Svechnikov recorded his 20th point of the season on Sunday night, making him one of four players from the 2018 NHL draft class to have already hit that mark this season. [NHL PR]

Chicago Blackhawks 8, Washington Capitals 5

New York Islanders 3, Anaheim Ducks 2

Vancouver Canucks 3, Detroit Red Wings 2

Arizona Coyotes 4, Toronto Maple Leafs 2

Carolina Hurricanes 7, Edmonton Oilers 4

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Barry Trotz’s emotional return to D.C. will also have playoff feel

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Barry Trotz may want to treat Friday’s meeting with the Washington Capitals as “any other game,” but it will be anything but that as he returns to D.C. for the first time since the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

The Islanders and Trotz will visit Capital One Arena for the first time this season, which is also the first time the head coach has been in the building since Game 4 of the Cup Final. Two days later the Capitals were celebrating their first championship. Two weeks after that Trotz resigned and later headed for Long Island.

It was a successful four years in D.C. for Trotz, who guided the Capitals to the most regular-season wins (205) in the NHL between 2014-2018. As he did for years in Nashville, Washington followed his lead with a strong defensive mindset, which was helped by goaltending coach Mitch Korn, that saw them allow only an average of 2.45 goals per game over that period.

Now Trotz and Korn are with the Islanders (Korn is the Director of Goaltending, while Piero Greco is the team’s goaltending coach) and the results have followed.

The Islanders are one of the NHL’s biggest surprises this season and the Trotz Effect has already taken hold. They have allowed the fewest goals in the NHL (116) and are only averaging 2.52 goals allowed per game through 46 games. Greco and Korn have turned Robin Lehner (.934 even strength save percentage) and Thomas Greiss (.928 EVSV%) into a formidable tandem who offer confident options in net every night. 

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Listen to Capitals players, especially the veterans who played under Trotz all four years, and you’ll hear them talk about he changed the culture in that dressing room, about how he stayed relaxed no matter how high or low the situation, about his attention to details. That had a positive effect on his team — one that was so desperately seeking to overcome playoff ghosts. Nicklas Backstrom said he instilled a “never being satisfied” attitude. John Carlson noted how that as the Trotz evolved as a coach so too did his team, which resulted in a championship.

The things that Trotz brought to D.C. remain as his former associate head coach, Todd Reirden, now runs the Capitals’ bench. Another assistant, Lane Lambert, joined Trotz and Korn on Long Island, and he’s hoping that whatever video tribute that’s played Friday night also includes them.

This will the second emotional moment Trotz will have had this season involving his former team. Back in November, when the Capitals visited the Islanders at Barclays Center, he received his Stanley Cup ring and got to give a few words of thanks to his former players, along with Lambert and Korn.

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At the time, the Islanders were third in the Metropolitan Division. They remain in that spot and following Thursday’s win over the New Jersey Devils sit one point behind the Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets for tops in the division. As Trotz said, there was work to be done to put his new team on the level to what his old team accomplished, but the trend is certainly heading into the right direction. After joining his new team, he felt they could be in the playoff mix in the Eastern Conference but was unsure because there were many unknowns.

Now it’s a reality and with 36 games to go the Islanders have banked enough points to give them a bit of a cushion in the playoff picture. Balanced scoring, good defense, dependable goaltending — these are the marks of a Barry Trotz team. Friday’s game will have an emotional touch, but also a playoff feel for both sides.

“We see every game as a normal game and try to get ready as a normal game, whether there’s a former coach, there’s a playoff game, whatever” said Backstrom. “But obviously we all know what Barry’s done for us here as players and for us as a city. I think it’s pretty special. So I’m sure he will be well-received here [Friday], and he should be because he deserves it.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Aho helps Hurricanes keep rolling; Islanders, Flames win big

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Three Stars

1. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes. With wins in seven out of their past eight games the Carolina Hurricanes are trying to make a run at a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They continued their recent strong play on Sunday afternoon with a very impressive win over one of the league’s best teams, the Nashville Predators, and it was Sebastian Aho once again leading the way. Aho finished with four points, including a hat trick, in the 6-3 win. Aho now has 12 points during this recent eight-game stretch and is up to 21 goals and 51 total points for the season. He is having an incredible season.

2. Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames. The Calgary Flames are looking like one of the best teams in the NHL and dominated the Arizona Coyotes on Sunday night with an emphatic 7-1 win that featured another huge game for Norris Trophy contender Mark Giordano. Giordano scored two goals and added an assist in the win as he continues what has been the best season of his already strong career.

3. Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders. This was a complete beatdown for the New York Islanders as they raced out to an early three-goal lead against the NHL’s best team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and never looked back. One of the reasons they never looked back is because Thomas Greiss stopped 38 out of the 39 shots he faced. Regular starter Robin Lehner has been one of the Islanders’ best and most important players this season, but Greiss has been outstanding as well and now has a save percentage north of .917 for the season, which is well above the league average. 

Other notable performances from Sunday

  • Artemi Panarin had two more points and Nick Foligno scored two goals as the Columbus Blue Jackets were all over the New York Rangers in a 7-5 win that left Rangers coach David Quinn fuming angry after it was over.
  • Johnny Gaudreau had two more points to give him 67 on the season, tying him with Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid for third-most in the league. They are both just one point behind Mikko Rantanen of the Colroado Avalanche for second in the scoring race. Everyone is a distance second to Tampa Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov, who was held off the scoresheet on Sunday night, something that has not happened very much this season.
  • The New York Islanders’ fourth line played a big role in their win over the Tampa Bay Lightning by scoring a pair of goals. Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas, and Matt Martin all had two points in the win.

Highlights of the Night

Yes, it came in a losing effort but Nashville Predators forward Filip Forsberg scored a pretty incredible goal on Sunday afternoon.

The Vancouver Canucks did not get Michael Matheson to drop the gloves in response to his body-slam on prized rookie Elias Petterson earlier this season, but they did get plenty of revenge on the scored with a 5-1 win over the Florida Panthers. Jacob Markstrom had a great night in goal against his former team with this fancy glove save being his best of the night. 

The Winnipeg Jets sent the Anaheim Ducks to their 11th straight defeat thanks to this overtime goal from Bryan Little with 10 seconds remaining in the overtime period. 

Factoids

  • Winnipeg Jet forward Patrik Laine scored his 25th goal of the season on Sunday, giving him three 25-goal seasons in the NHL before celebrating his 21st birthday. Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Carpenter, Dale Hawerchuk, Brian Bellows, Jimmy Carson, and Ilya Kovalchuk are the only other players in league history to accomplish that feat. [NHL PR]
  • The Calgary Flames needed just 47 games to record their 30th win of the season, matching a franchise record for fewest games needed to win 30 games in a season. The other season they did it was the 1988-89 campaign, when they went on to win the Stanley Cup. [NHL PR]
  • Carolina Hurricanes forward Justin Williams extended his goal-scoring streak to five games on Sunday afternoon, making him just the sixth player in NHL history to record a goal-scoring streak of at least five games after celebrating their 37th birthday. [NHL PR]

Scores

Carolina Hurricanes 6, Nashville Predators 3

Winnipeg Jets 4, Anaheim Ducks 3 (OT)

Columbus Blue Jackets 7, New York Rangers 5

Vancouver Canucks 5, Florida Panthers 1

New York Islanders 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 1

Calgary Flames 7, Arizona Coyotes 1

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: McDavid does it all, again; Point hits 60

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Three stars

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

No team goes the way of their best player quite like the Edmonton Oilers.

McDavid played the role of McJesus on Thursday, saving the Oilers from another loss by scoring his second of the game with just eight seconds left on the game clock. With one point secured, McDavid made sure Edmonton took home the maximum, scoring the shootout winner against the Florida Panthers.

Yes, McJesus saves — including the blushes of his own teammates after this ugly own goal.

2. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning 

This kid should be an NHL All-Star (and he still could be if he wins the Last Men In vote).

He assisted on the tying goal in the second period on the power play and then rattled off back-to-back goals — his 27th and 28th — to secure a 3-1 come-from-behind win against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Point gets overshadowed by Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, but the 22-year-old is a special player and now has 60 points on the season. He now has back-to-back two-goal, one assist nights and has points 10 of his past 11 games.

Never mind being an all-star, he belongs in the Hart conversation.

3. Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers needed someone — anyone — to help them break out of their eight-game losing streak.

And it was Hart who produced that special effort, stopping 37 of 38 shots sent this way in a 2-1 win against the Dallas Stars. Hart was just 2:51 away from his first NHL shutout when Jamie Benn finally found a way past him in the third period.

Hart doesn’t have a great record at 3-4-1, but his .920 save percentage would be a godsend for the Flyers if he could keep it hovering around there. The lack of run support is a big deal, but games like the one Hart had on Thursday make the win still possible.

Other notable performances:

  • Jordan Binnington (the goalie you’ve never heard of) got his second straight win in as many NHL starts, stopping 28 of 29 shots. He picked up his first win in fine fashion earlier this week with a 25-save shutout on Monday.
  • Jason Zucker scored twice, including the game-winner as the Minnesota Wild held on in a 3-2 win against the Winnipeg Jets
  • John Tavares had two goals, including the game-winner, and an assist in a 4-2 Toronto Maple Leafs win against the New Jersey Devils.
  • Mat Barzal had a goal and two apples in a 4-3 win in the Battle of New York.
  • Robin Lehner made it eight wins in a row to help lift the Islanders past the Rangers.
  • Artemi Panarin, who is getting offers from all over the place to stay in Columbus, gave John Tortorella his 600th win with his overtime winner in a 4-3 defeat of the Nashville Predators. He also scored in regulation, along with Bonne Jenner’s brace.
  • Sven Baertschi had two goals, including a third-period game-tying goal that secured a point for the Canucks.
  • Richard Panik had two goals, including the game-winner to help the Coyotes beat Baertschi’s Canucks 4-3 in overtime.
  • Chris Tierney grabbed two goals in a 4-1 rout for the Senators against the Kings.

Highlights of the night

Factoids

Scores

Capitals 4, Bruins 2
Maple Leafs 4, Devils 2
Islanders 4, Rangers 3
Flyers 2, Stars 1
Blues Jackets 4, Predators 3 (OT)
Lightning 3, Hurricanes 1
Blues 4, Canadiens 1
Wild 3, Jets 2
Oilers 4, Panthers 3 (SO)
Coyotes 4, Canucks 3 (OT)
Senators 4, Kings 1


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck