BUFFALO – Before Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss morphed into the NHL’s best goaltending tandem, they struggled mightily a year ago, enduring rough seasons.
In 2017-18, Lehner, 27, battled personal problems while tending goal for the hapless Sabres, the league’s worst team. Meanwhile, Greiss, 33, played behind the New York Islanders’ porous defense, which allowed a league-high 293 goals.
But these days, the goalies are thriving, enjoying career-best campaigns for the upstart Islanders, who showcase a rigid structure under new coach Barry Trotz.
“We’re both good goalies that (have) been in difficult situations,” Lehner said prior to Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to the Sabres. “We’re not in a difficult situation anymore. We’re in a good situation we haven’t been (in) before. I think it’s just our normal potential.”
Entering Tuesday’s game, Lehner and Greiss ranked first and second overall, respectively, in goals-against average and save percentage.
Their splendid numbers were nearly identical. Lehner was 17-8-4 with a 2.02 goals-against average, .930 save percentage and three shutouts in 30 outings. Greiss was just a hair behind Lehner – 16-8-2, 2.28, .927 and three shutouts – in 28 contests.
Trotz said the Islanders never planned on splitting the netminders’ action. Injuries, however, have made it work out that way.
“When both of them are sort of vying for playing time and both of them are performing, I think there’s a big advantage sometimes,” Trotz said inside KeyBank Center.
The Islanders have morphed into the NHL’s biggest surprise under Trotz, who won the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals last season. Right now, they rank first in the Metropolitan Division.
Considering the Islanders lost their captain, John Tavares, to the Toronto Maple Leafs in free agency, their resurgence following an 80-point campaign has been even more remarkable.
“Coming in here, from the get-go, it was never, ‘We lost Tavares, now we’re not good,’” Lehner said. “I talked to a lot of players right when I signed, and everybody was confident, because (we have) a lot of good players. …
“The first part of the season, we played good in spurts but we had some holes in our game, mistakes. Now, the last few months, we kind of ‘waterproofed’ it a bit and just shown we’re a really solid, solid team that can defend but also score goals.”
Lehner has become perhaps the NHL’s best story this season.
In a harrowing first-person essay for The Athletic New York published in September, the Swede described how his drug and alcohol addiction and untreated bipolar disorder led him to contemplate suicide multiple times late last season before seeking help.
Through the NHL/NHLPA substance abuse program, Lehner entered rehab. He was diagnosed “bipolar 1 with manic phases” and ADHD with PTSD and trauma, according to The Athletic.
Lehner played well for stretches over his three seasons in Buffalo, most notably in 2016-17, when he compiled a .920 save percentage in a career-high 59 appearances.
The Swede made his first appearance back in Buffalo on Dec. 31, backstopping the Islanders to a 3-1 win.
“It feels a little bit better being back here this time,” Lehner said. “It was kind of nice to get it over and done with.”
Sabres center Casey Mittelstadt suffered a “little bang” and missed Tuesday’s game-with a lower-body injury, according to coach Phil Housley. Mittelstadt is day-to-day.
Rookie winger C.J. Smith replaced Mittelstadt, who left the ice a little early Tuesday morning.
Having compiled two goals and seven points over the last 10 games, Mittelstadt, 20, is enjoying the most productive stretch of his short NHL career.
In other news, a lower-body injury sidelined Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian for the second straight contest, meaning Matt Hunwick played again.
Hunwick, 33, has played just five times this season. He appeared in back-to-back games for only the second time.
Why has Housley chosen Hunwick over defenseman Nathan Beaulieu, who has played only four of the last 22 games.
“I just liked Hunwick’s game against Columbus (on Jan. 29),” Housley said. “It was a game we made some changes coming off the break. I thought he had a strong game against Winnipeg (on Sunday).”
Beaulieu skated in the warm-up.
The Sabres honored the 50 victims of Flight 3407 with a moment of silence before the game. The Continental connection flight crashed in Clarence Center 10 years ago Tuesday.