The Islanders are back in the playoffs for the first time since they bowed out in the second round to the Lightning in 2016. A lot has changed since then. The Islanders have a very different first line. John Tavares, Frans Nielsen, and Kyle Okposo have moved on. Their defense includes 4 first or second year players. Pulock played in the 2016 playoffs but this is only his second full season. Devon Toews is a rookie, and Mayfield and Pelech are playing in key roles for the first time in their careers. There is new management in place, including Stanley Cup Champion coach Barry Trotz. 2015-2016 was Jack Capuano’s last full season with the club. Most important, arguably, there is a new goalie tandem.
When Jarosalv Halak departed after four years with the Islanders last summer, the team needed a new goalie. The signed Robin Lehner to a one-year, two million dollar contract. The contract had “proove it” written all over it, and Lehner has done nothing short of that. He is third in the NHL with a 2.18 GAA and a .928 save percentage. He leads the Isles with 24 wins. After turning his life around last summer, Lehner is having his best season ever.
Even though Lehner has 24 wins, the team has 47. Simple math tells us that the other goalie on this team has the other 23. Greiss has been having a career year as well. He sits right behind Lehner with a 2.28 GAA and a .927 save percentage.
The goalies have been the best tandem in the NHL, and are shoe-ins for the William M. Jennings Trophy for least goals allowed in a season. While two goalies can share the trophy, they can’t share the crease, not in a single game at least. Barry Trotz will have to pick one of his two outstanding goalies to start the playoffs.
Last year, Barry Trotz was the coach of the Washington Capitals. He had one of the best goalies in the league, Braden Holtby, at his disposal. Despite posting 34 wins and the team finishing first in the division, Holtby struggled late in the season. Backup goalie Philip Grubauer stole the show, winning 6 of 9 games in March with two shutouts. He won the starting job for games one and two. After losing both games in OT, Trotz switched to Holtby and the rest is history. Even though that’s not the case on the Island, it shows that Trotz is willing to ride the hot hand, and is not afraid to make a change if something goes wrong.
Trotz’s decision last year shows that he’s not afraid to play a goalie with little to no playoff experience. Grubauer played game one game before last year’s magical run, game two against the Isles in 2015. Holtby was sick that night and Grubauer stepped up and helped the Caps to a 4-3 come from behind victory. Thomas Greiss played two playoff series in his career, both in 2016 with New York. Lehner last played in a playoff game in 2013, a loss to the Penguins.
What’s even more astonishing about the two goalies is that their advanced stats are also extremely alike. The one difference is that Griess has slightly more quality starts (63.5% to 59.5%). The goalies have been near identical this season. This means that the decision may come down to more arbitrary criterion.
Saying that Robin Lehner is having a career year is a disrespect to the work he put in to literally revive his career. He is finally playing up to the potential that the Senators once thought he had when they drafted him 46th overall in 2009. His peripheral stats are off the charts. Most of his wins have come in regulation, the only overtime win coming against the Avalanche. There is no 3 on 3 or shootouts in the playoffs, just 5 on 5 until someone scores. He is also coming into the playoffs hot. Before the game against Toronto on April 1st, he was on a four game winning streak, and 4-2 since coming back from an injury he sustained on March 5th against Ottawa. He led the Isles to a comeback win against Winnipeg last week and played well in the loss to Toronto. He is the hot goalie and most playoff ready.
Greiss is having a rebound year after a tough 17-18 campaign. He was the starting goalie back in October, winning the team’s first game against Carolina. He played the three subsequent games against them, winning all of them. He also played in a game against Pittsburgh where he backstopped the Isles to a 3-2 shootout victory back in November, playing spectacularly in OT and the shootout. Lehner was 1-0-1 against the Isles other potential first round opponent. He has more playoff experience, winning his first ever series against Florida in 2016. That series included three OT games, proving that he could go the distance if needed. He also has all but one of the Isles wins past regulation this season. He won five of seven while Lehner was injured in mid-March. Those were seven straight starts as well. He also played great on Thursday against Florida. Greiss has more experience and has come in when needed and played extremely well.
It’s a great problem to have; two great goalies that can win on any given night. The playoffs are a completely different animal. There are no back to backs. You play the same opponent for at least 4 straight games. One goalie usually owns the crease until he’s done something to lose that privilege. Both goalies are deserving of the opportunity to start game 1. I think it will be Robin Lehner. He is in another zone right now. He wants to, and could surprise himself, and the entire league. Griess will be waiting patiently, ready in case of an injury or poor play. Whoever does start, I’m more than confident in our ability to embark on a long playoff run.