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Lehner focused on Cup with Islanders, not individual awards

Goalie, finalist for Masterton, Vezina, had resurgent season after detailing struggles

by Brian Compton @BComptonNHL / NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

EAST MEADOW, N.Y. -- Robin Lehner said he had eight or nine teams interested in him when he became an unrestricted free agent July 1.

The general managers of those teams were unaware the goalie had just finished rehab to help deal with mental health struggles that led to suicidal thoughts and drug and alcohol addictions.

Lehner knew he had to be transparent. When he was, the interest dwindled to two teams.

 

[RELATED: Vezina finalists announced]

 

The New York Islanders were one of them, and they signed Lehner to a one-year contract July 3. Two months later, on the first day of training camp, Lehner made his story public. He said he wasn't seeking attention. His goal was to help others dealing with similar issues. 

"For people out there that are having a bad day and don't see any light at the end of the tunnel, that don't really want to wake up tomorrow or whatever the case may be, you've just got to get a plan, you've got to help yourself first, you've got to get the right help," Lehner said. "When you get that, then you can start your journey towards whatever you want in life. You can't do it reversed; you've got to take care of your recovery first. Otherwise it's not going to work. That's what good about this; it shows it can be done with the right people, right health."

Lehner has rewarded the Islanders, helping them advance to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a sweep of the PIttsburgh Penguins, allowing three goals in the final three games. New York awaits the winner of the best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round series between the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes. The Capitals lead the series 3-2, with Game 6 at PNC Arena on Monday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS, FS-CR, NBCSWA).

His playoff success carried over from the regular season when he was 25-13-5 with a 2.13 goals-against average, a .930 save percentage and six shutouts in 46 games. On Saturday he was named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, an award given annually to the goalie voted the best at his position, along with Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Ben Bishop of the Dallas Stars.

Lehner also is a finalist for the Masterton Trophy, awarded to the player voted to best exemplify the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. The winners will be announced at the 2019 NHL Awards presented by Bridgestone at the Mandalay Bay Events Center sports and entertainment complex in Las Vegas on June 19. 

Video: Lehner's stellar play leads Islanders to Round 2

"It'd be really nice if we win the Cup first," Lehner said. "These recognitions are nice, it's giving me a chance to keep building on a platform that I've started with a lot of these issues that I want to work with and shed light on and help change the perception of everything, because I think there's a long, long way to go.

"It's all perception. It's things that I'm going to try and help change here. I think this (Vezina) nomination, I think it's voted by the GMs, so that's a really powerful thing because they weren't interested this summer."

Lehner's mental health issues led to a diagnosis of bipolar 1 with manic phases. It was made five weeks into his rehab treatments, after he had a panic attack on the ice playing for the Buffalo Sabres against the Detroit Red Wings on March 29, 2018.

He played the first two periods of that 6-3 loss and allowed three goals on 20 shots one night after he admitted to having suicidal thoughts. Lehner wrote he began to experience chest pains and had difficulty breathing shortly after the game began. It was the last game he played for the Sabres.

The 27-year-old played three seasons with Buffalo and was 42-61-22 with a 2.77 GAA and a .916 save percentage. He was 14-26-9 with a 3.01 GAA and .908 save percentage last season.

New York was willing to give him a second chance on the ice while Lehner gave himself one away from the rink. This season, Lehner and Thomas Greiss won the Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals allowed in the NHL (196, counting five shootout-deciding goals).

"You're most proud of what he's done as a person," Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello said. "How he's handled whatever his past was, whatever [went] wrong and how he's addressed that, and he had to address that. Certainly you give as much support as you can, and his teammates have done that and he's done that with his teammates by respecting them and who they were.

"But his focus is not on [the awards], I can assure you of that. He's as team a guy as there is on that ice."  

This mentality to play for the guy next to you is arguably the biggest reason the Islanders find themselves in the second round of the playoffs. The way they embraced Lehner and made him feel welcome was visible from the start. 

Video: NYI@PIT, Gm4: Lehner shuts down Guentzel's blast

"He deserves it, he's such a good person," Islanders forward Josh Bailey said. "Great teammate. I think with what he went through and the way he's dealt with it, I think you can't help but just embrace him. It takes a lot of courage to do what he did. 

"To come in this year and play the way he's played, I think he's made believers out of all of us, our whole fanbase. He's got a lot of people behind him."

That especially goes for Islanders fans, who gave Lehner the loudest reception at Nassau Coliseum when he was introduced prior to Game 1, a 4-3 overtime win against the Penguins on April 10. 

"They're amazing," Lehner said. "They're a part of saving a lot of lives, these fans and what they're doing right now. They've certainly helped me in my journey, saving my life. It's just the beginning and hopefully we can all keep going with this."

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