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Lehner eager to embrace Swede opportunity

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Senators rookie goaltender Robin Lehner makes his home debut tonight against the Detroit Red Wings, a team whose lineup features several Swedish hockey icons (Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).

Their lineup reads like a roll call of some of Sweden's biggest hockey icons.

Nick Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom ... it's a group of Detroit Red Wings revered by anyone associated with Sweden's familiar tre knonor. And yes, those admirers include Ottawa Senators goaltender Robin Lehner, a 19-year-old who grew up in Goteborg watching such heroes from afar.

"(Lidstrom) is a big guy for our country (playing) over here," said Lehner. "Same with Zetterberg, Franzen, Holmstrom ... a couple of those guys, a lot of people (in Sweden) are looking up to and they have a lot of (winning) routine in this league."

For one night at least, however, Lehner wants to do his part to break that routine of the Wings (30-13-6), who are again top Stanley Cup contenders in the Western Conference. Senators head coach Cory Clouston has tabbed the organization's top goaltending prospect as his starter for tonight's matchup with Detroit at Scotiabank Place (7 p.m., TSN, Team 1200).

Lehner is fresh off a 31-save performance during the Senators' 2-1 loss to the Devils on Tuesday night, in Newark, N.J. But tonight Lehner's home debut, back-to-back starts and facing one of the National Hockey League's most potent attacks offers a definite step up for the rookie stopper. But Clouston doesn't doubt the confident Lehner can handle it.

"He likes that type of challenge," Clouston said earlier today. "That's the type of individual he is. He likes the spotlight, he likes that opportunity and I thought he played very well (against the Devils). It's good experience for him. It's all about, for us, getting a win and we think he's going to give us a good opportunity to do that."

Still, Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, who is part of Sweden's hockey royalty himself, finds it easy to imagine the excitement churning inside of Lehner.

"You can (see) the energy he brings, the enthusiasm of being up here and playing against the best," said Alfredsson. "Especially in a game like today, (facing) a lot of Swedish guys he probably watched growing up and a very skilled team. I'm sure he'll be thrilled playing tonight."

The future definitely appears to be now for the young Swede, who was expected to spend the majority of the current campaign in the American Hockey League with the Binghamton Senators. But tonight marks his third NHL start and there are likely several more to come before the season is done.

"We're going to do it on almost a day-by-day basis," Clouston said when asked about how fast the track might get for Lehner. "We want to make sure we do what's best for him. He's still a very young goaltender. We want to make sure he's getting as many games as he possibly can, but we're developing him. Not only his physical ability, but his mental and emotional strength, his toughness and expereince ... we want to make sure we're concerning ourselves with that as well."

Lehner admits it's hard to find the words to describe all that is happening to him right now, saying "right now, it's a little bit cloudy. It feels a little bit unreal." But it isn't entirely something he believed was beyond his reach this season. He credits the Senators organization with doing all it can to put him in a position to succeed and grow.

"I'm just really happy for the organization giving me the chances that they are (now)," he said. "They help me a lot with everything ... they really stand behind me. (Assistant general manager) Tim Murray, before the game with Binghamton here (in November), he came up to me and I had a really good talk with him right before the game, which gave me confidence.

"It was the same yesterday. He comes up to me and (takes) pressure off my back, tells me to do my best and see where it goes. That helps a lot, to get words like that from big guys in the organization. It helps me go out and play with confidence and not much pressure."

Lehner's family and friends back in Sweden are intently following his every move. His father, Michael, a former coach of New York Rangers star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, has been burning the midnight oil to watch his son's games.

"He's up all night watching the games back home in Sweden," said Lehner.

Maybe never more so than tonight.

Around the boards


Jarkko Ruutu (lower body) and Jesse Winchester (personal) both return to the Senators lineup tonight against the Wings, with rookie Colin Greening re-assigned to Binghamton. Clouston will make a game-time decision on which defenceman is scratched ... Centre Jason Spezza (shoulder) skated this morning and Clouston expects he "should be ready for the weekend," when the Senators open a four-game road trip in Uniondale, N.Y., against the Islanders (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200) ... The news isn't nearly as good for goaltender Pascal Leclaire, whose recovery from a lower-body injury has stalled. "He definitely hasn't made any improvements in the last little while," said Clouston. "He's not anywhere near being ready to play now."


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