EAST MEADOW, N.Y. -- New York Islanders left wing Anders Lee prides himself on his work ethic. Even during his collegiate days, when he had a pretty good idea he'd become an NHL player, it didn't stop him from making sure to graduate from the University of Notre Dame.
So when Lee scored 25 goals as a rookie with the Islanders in 2014-15, he took it awfully hard when coach Jack Capuano made him a healthy scratch for Games 6 and 7 in New York's Eastern Conference First Round playoff series against the Washington Capitals. Lee, who was 24 at the time, watched the Islanders season end from the press box after journeyman Colin McDonald, who played 18 regular-season games, took his spot in the lineup.
Lee was rewarded with a four-year, $15 million contract that summer, but the effects of being scratched for the Islanders' two biggest games of the season lingered. His production dipped to 15 goals in 80 games last season, which ended abruptly when a slap shot from defenseman Johnny Boychuk broke a bone in Lee's leg one week before the start of the playoffs.
"For sure. I think so a little bit," Lee said when asked if being scratched in the playoffs had affected him. "I felt like I had a really good year. No, it didn't affect me, but for sure I think it did a little bit. But that's long enough ago now where it's water under the bridge. It's all good.
"It's about just going out there and playing. I think we all put a lot of pressure on ourselves, and I know I do. I think that's been one of the biggest things, is you want to match and get better every year. Sometimes, whether it's bounces or you do go through a stretch where you're not playing that well, it really starts to weigh on you. I've learned a lot from that. You just try to move forward every day. You can still become a better player each day, even though it may not seem like stats-wise or stuff like that all the time, and that's kind of the part that [stinks]."
Video: NYI@SJS: Lee redirects Bailey's point shot in for PPG
Lee returned to training camp in September with a clean bill of health, but his offensive struggles continued. He scored one goal through New York's first 18 games, and his inability to score has played a role in the Islanders' inability to win games; they are last in the Eastern Conference (7-10-4) heading into their Wednesday Night Rivalry game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Barclays Center (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV).
"I've sat down and said, 'Geez. I've done this before,'" said Lee, who played his 200th NHL game last Friday. "I've scored 25 goals in this League. I've scored a lot of goals in a decent amount of time. It's nothing that's foreign to me, but when I go through stretches like that, it feels foreign. It feels like, 'Geez, I'm never going to score again.' And then you go through games and you don't even have a shot and you come back and you're [ticked] off and you can't sleep. You've just got to let it go, and that's the hardest thing to do.
"That's when it's the worst, when things aren't going your way and the team's losing … it's the worst thing ever. Coming to the rink and trying to battle through that, it [stinks]. You've just got to somehow let it go."
But things began to change for Lee on the Islanders' trip to California last week. Though New York won once in three games, Lee scored three goals. He was rewarded for getting his 6-foot-3, 228-pound frame in front of the net, the area where most of his goals have always been scored.
"I definitely got some bounces, but just letting go of the mental side of it and going out there and playing," said Lee, who has four goals and one assist in 21 games. "It's not going to get much worse, you know? You've just got to somehow let it not affect you. That's really hard to do; it's one of the toughest things we have -- that mental side, that adversity that we face when things aren't going your way and every day it's not getting any better, so you've just got to somehow let it go and be free, I guess."
Video: NYI@LAK: Lee stuffs in a rebound off the boards
Capuano easily could have made Lee a healthy scratch at any point during the past month; instead, he allowed the power forward to work through his struggles and has even given him time on the top power-play unit. Those decisions are starting to pay dividends.
"For me, the first 10 or 11 games, he was just thinking too much," Capuano said. "I think once he starts getting to that mode where he's in attack mode all the time and getting to the net and just playing the game and just clearing his mind … and that's what he's done.
"You've got to be relaxed when you play. Sometimes I think your mind is going just as fast as your feet. I think he's slowed his game down from a visual standpoint, from his mind, and he's back where he needs to be right now, which is good for us because we're going to need some scoring."
November has not been kind to the Islanders; following their 2-1 overtime win against the Calgary Flames at Barclays Center on Monday, they are 3-5-4 heading into their final game of the month. Should Lee's recent surge carry into December, it could go a long way in determining whether the Islanders can get back into the playoff race.
"It's tough to take those small, little consolations when we're not winning," Lee said. "Had it been like three losses in a row after we won like five or six, it's different and you know we're playing good. But honestly, it's tough to be in here knowing that we have played well, we just haven't closed games out. I think that's what eats at us when we leave the rink here. We've got to find a way to close those games."