Robin Lehner repaid the New York Islanders for the faith they showed in him last offseason by having one of the best seasons by a goalie in their history.
The 27-year-old is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the top goalie in the NHL, and the Masterton Trophy, awarded annually by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to ice hockey. He went 25-13-5 with a 2.13 goals-against average, .930 save percentage and six shutouts in 46 regular-season games. 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.
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But when the Islanders' season ended with a 5-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Second Round at PNC Arena on Friday, the questions about Lehner's future with them began.
With unrestricted free agency looming July 1, could this be his only season in New York?
"It's a little bit too much emotions right now," said Lehner, who signed a one-year contract with the Islanders on July 3, 2018. "I really like everyone here. This group is incredible, some of the best people I've been around. I've been in the League for a while now. We'll see what God has in store for me."
Lehner, who was 14-26-9 with a 3.01 GAA and .908 save percentage with the Buffalo Sabres last season, said the Islanders were one of two teams who remained interested in his services after he came clean about going to rehab to help deal with mental health struggles that led to suicidal thoughts and drug and alcohol addictions. His mental health issues led to a diagnosis of bipolar 1 with manic phases.
The Islanders, led by new general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz, proved to be a perfect fit for both sides. They welcomed Lehner with open arms, and he helped them allow the fewest goals in the NHL (196, counting five shootout goals), one season after they gave up the most (297; four shootout goals).
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"For me personally, this is step one for me," Lehner said. "There's a lot of things left for me to address and fix in my life. I have a long summer to address that, and I truly believe in my core that I'm going to be a better goalie next year."
Lehner's play carried into the Stanley Cup Playoffs; he allowed six goals during a four-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. But New York's offense sputtered against the Hurricanes, scoring five goals in four straight losses.
Questions arose prior to Game 4 whether Lehner would start; not because he was struggling, but more if Trotz could ignite a spark with Thomas Greiss, who won three of four regular-season games against Carolina. He stuck with Lehner.
The starting goalie was hardly to blame, but Lehner was pulled 3:19 into the second period Friday with the Islanders trailing 3-1.
"It's hockey. I don't take that personal," Lehner said. "He's the best coach in the League."
Just like they had all season on and off the ice, Lehner's teammates had his back after the game. But unlike the first round, they simply didn't generate enough in front of him.
"That had nothing to do with Robin," Islanders captain Anders Lee said. "You've seen enough hockey in your day that sometimes those changes are for the team, not for Robin. He had nothing to do with that. It was more to find a fire, find a spark. Robin had a phenomenal season."
Lehner is one of four key Islanders eligible to become an unrestricted free agent; Lee, center Brock Nelson and right wing Jordan Eberle could also be elsewhere next season. Greiss has one season remaining on his contract.
The Islanders are also hopeful Ilya Sorokin, their third-round pick (No. 78) in the 2014 NHL Draft who hasn't had a GAA higher than 1.61 in the past five seasons with CSKA Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League, will eventually come to New York.
"That's part of it, our game, our business," Lee said. "But we're a family in here, we're a team. Until that changes, we're a family."
The Islanders will clean out their lockers and have player-exit meetings at their practice facility Monday. Whether it's Lehner's final trip there remains to be seen, but after the comeback he's made on and off the ice, he knows he can hold his head up high.
"It [stinks] that we lost, but there's nothing to regret in here," Lehner said. "I'm not regretting anything. It was a good year for the organization. It [stinks] that it ended, but the foundation of this team is really, really strong."
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