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Lehner using new approach for NHL career-best season

Islanders goalie learning to stay square to shooters, play deeper in crease

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

VANCOUVER -- Robin Lehner knows his personal success this season is tied to the New York Islanders' turnaround on defense under first-year coach Barry Trotz, but the 27-year-old goalie also has undergone a transformation in the way he plays.

For all the justifiable attention on Trotz's role in New York going from the most goals-against in the NHL last season (3.57 per game) to the fewest this season (2.30), Lehner credits work with new director of goaltending Mitch Korn and goaltending coach Piero Greco for a .931 save percentage, which leads the NHL among goalies to have played at least 30 games.

"I understand angles for the first time in my career," said Lehner, who is 20-10-5 with an NHL-leading 2.07 goals-against average (minimum 30 games) and a career-best four shutouts in 36 games. "They have really broken down my angles in a way no one else has before, and that allows me to be in good position. I have never been so good in position as I am this year."

When Lehner talks about better understanding angles, he doesn't just mean centering himself in the net relative to the position of the puck. The improvements are more about his ability to stay square to the puck and opposing shooters as he establishes and adjusts his position to a more conservative and consistent depth in the crease than he used in the past.

Video: TOR@NYI: Lehner denies Matthews twice

Lehner tended to retreat toward the goal line, especially as plays moved down the wings and deeper into the offensive zone. Though that was enough to keep him in the middle of the net, he didn't stay square to the puck. Instead he often would get caught flat, or parallel to the goal line, which made him look smaller and opened holes in his 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame.

"If you are off-angle or not square, you are in awkward positions to make saves and you open up holes and give the shooter net to look at," Lehner said. "If you are square, there's no net."

Lehner is better now at rotating his body as he works back toward his posts with smaller, shorter movements, keeping himself square to the shooter.

"I am 10 times more square than I have ever been," Lehner said. "A guy with my frame, even pucks I don't see hit me because I am keeping my line and I am square all the time. A lot of goalies have a problem being flat instead of staying square to the shooter and they have done a good job of teaching me to recognize that, where before I wasn't able to do it because I am too far out and I am moving too much. Now even if I am square and in the middle of the net, or even one foot off my goal line, I am square and I am a big guy and I have reflexes."

Video: NYI@VAN: Lehner flashes the leather on Leivo

As Lehner indicated, he is playing from a more conservative initial depth than he did during his five first eight NHL seasons with the Ottawa Senators and the Buffalo Sabres. Lehner rarely gets beyond the edge of his crease now, making it easier to get back to his posts with quick movements, being sure to establish that early rotation while moving.

"I put my one skate on one side of the corner of the crease and one skate on the other side, and I always start from that position," he said. "It's just two small movements for me to cover the whole side."

Lehner said he even uses that edge-of-the-crease positioning as a home base against rush chances, no longer coming out to challenge early and timing his backwards retreat.

Of course, it's not like he's had to worry about a lot of rush chances with the Islanders.

Video: EDM@NYI: Lehner slides across to rob Klefbom

Asked how much easier Trotz's system makes life for the goalies, Lehrer talked first about the reduction in odd-man rushes. He figures it's a big reason why him and playing partner Thomas Greiss, who is 17-9-2 with a .928 save percentage and a 2.26 goals-against average in 31 games, are near the top of the League's goaltending statistics after each struggled last season.

"If I compare my situation in Buffalo to here, we don't see odd-man rushes," Lehner said. "People always talk about high-danger chances and zone 1 (area in front of the net), but you can save those. But how hard are odd-man rushes? This League is so good and so skilled at scoring, if you cut away odd-man rushes we can all work together to be a better defensive team in-zone and work on a game plan to use me and Greiss' best attributes to make saves.

"But to always be facing chances where they come in with speed, can make a pass, you have to go laterally, have to react to the next puck, that's the real tough situations."

Lehner knows his numbers are better because of seeing fewer of those situations, but he also believes the changes in his game are playing a big role in a great season.

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