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|Lehner leads B-Sens to the top of the AHL|
|Written by Dan Marrazza|
|Thursday, 03 January 2013 14:03|
Two years ago, Robin Lehner emerged from the bench to lead the Binghamton Senators to the Calder Cup. Now, after a setback season in 2011-12, Lehner has been the best player this season for the B-Sens, en route to the team having the AHL's highest points percentage.Binghamton Senators head coach Luke Richardson was named head coach of the AHL’s 2012-13 Eastern Conference All-Star Team on Monday night, following a 4-2 Senators victory over the St. John’s IceCaps which clinched Binghamton the Eastern Conference’s best points percentage (.707 on a 19-7-1-2 record) through the start of the new calendar year.
While Richardson’s resurrecting a B-Sens team which finished the 2011-12 season with an AHL-worst 65 points during his first season as the team’s head coach deserves recognition, the true rock of Binghamton’s impressive first-half run has been its goalie, Robin Lehner.
Along with a 12-4-1 record, Lehner leads AHL goalies who have played a majority of their team’s games with a 1.88 goals-against average and .944 save percentage, while leading a Binghamton defensive unit which has allowed the third fewest goals in the AHL (73) despite having the highest shots-against average (35.86) in the league.
“He’s gotten off to a good start because he came into training camp in the right frame of mind,” said Richardson of Lehner. “He was in great shape, both physically and mentally, and was determined to have a solid year, no matter what happened with the NHL lockout.”
Considering that dynamic goaltending was the driving force when the B-Sens won the 2010-11 Calder Cup with a then 19-year-old Lehner as the playoff MVP, a knee-jerk reaction could be to think that Lehner’s success in the AHL this season is just a replication of his past successes.
However, this is not the case.
In fact, when the Senators won the Calder Cup two years ago, Lehner didn’t become the team’s number-one goalie until Barry Brust—the same Barry Brust who broke the AHL’s consecutive-minute shutout record earlier this season with the Abbotsford Heat—was shellacked early in the team’s first-round series against the Manchester Monarchs. Prior to the playoffs, the veteran Brust had actually gotten the better of Lehner all season, too, with Brust previously having emerged as a borderline league MVP candidate by posting a phenomenal .925 save percentage and seven shutouts to carry the B-Sens from the depths of the standings into a playoff spot in the last week of the regular season.
But when Brust allowed 18 goals in his first four playoff starts, Lehner took over and lifted the B-Sens from a 3-1 opening-round series deficit to a championship, with Brust never again starting a game in a Senators uniform.
“That first round was the hardest and we got off to a struggle,” said B-Sens assistant coach Steve Stirling. “Then Robin went in, when he didn’t start the series, and got a couple wins. And he only got better from there.”
Lehner not only strung together three straight victories to carry the Senators out of the first round, but he did so with three straight overtime wins which each required Binghamton to make a third-period comeback. His clutch play included 14 straight overtime saves with his team facing immediate elimination and 28 third-period saves with his team facing imminent elimination, including a penalty-shot save against Manchester’s Bud Holloway in overtime of Game 6.
“With my experience in the American League, which is extensive, that first round can be the hardest one to get by,” said Stirling. “The fact that we got past a tough opponent in the first round just gave us life. Then we got better and better.”
The Senators, seemingly rejuvenated after digging themselves out of a deep first-round hole, didn’t require such dramatics for the rest of the playoffs.
Over the final three playoff rounds, Binghamton bulldozed the Portland Pirates, Charlotte Checkers and Houston Aeros by going 12-4 to win the first Calder Cup in Binghamton’s four-decade history in the AHL. Lehner, starting every game, was nearly flawless with a 2.10 goals-against average and .939 save percentage during that stretch.
“Robin just looked like he was playing with confidence,” recalled Stirling. “Coming from where he played in junior and the World Juniors, which are center stage in the world against the best pure competition in the world, had to give him some confidence.”
Despite his junior successes and Calder Cup playoff MVP, Lehner’s postseason heroics didn’t translate into continued success, last season. As a matter of fact, the 2011-12 B-Sens became the first defending Calder Cup championship team to finish the season with the AHL’s lowest point total since the 1968-69 Rochester Americans went 25-38-11 after be crowned champions the prior season.
Lehner, spending most of last season in the AHL with a few short stints in Ottawa, went 13-22-1 with a bloated 3.26 goals-against average in 40 games with Binghamton last season.
“A year ago, I think we were a little thin at the back end and Robin was having to make the first, the second and sometimes the third save, which is hard to do,” said Stirling. “You want your goalie to make the first save and have your D clear the puck. We did that in short spurts last season, but couldn’t sustain it.”
“Last season, nearly every guy from our Calder Cup year went away,” added Lehner. “We were young and inexperienced, and we got run over.”
Considering that 2010-11 B-Sens mainstays Zack Smith, Erik Condra, Jim O’Brien, Colin Greening, Bobby Butler and Kaspars Daugavins—along with 2011 junior graduate turned Calder Cup playoff revelation Jared Cowen—graduated from the AHL to form a large part of the core of the Ottawa Senators team which defied expectations to make the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, it’s hard to say that the B-Sens team which struggled last season was as talented as the team which won a championship the year before.
But although Lehner’s .907 save percentage with Binghamton last season partially reflects that his inflated goals-against average was a product of high amounts of shots-against and his defense’s failure to limit teams’ second and third opportunities, it’s still obvious that he’s a much better goalie this season than he was last season. With the Senators still averaging the highest amount of shots-against per game in the AHL this season, Lehner has raised his save percentage from .907 to .944, while nearly slicing his 3.26 goals-against average in half to 1.88.
“His maturation is getting better,” said Stirling of Lehner. “He’s still probably a couple years from full maturation, but you can just see it with the way he carries himself in the locker room, and with how he practices. With that, there’s no surprise when he plays better.”
For Lehner, maturity has always been viewed as the key to his future success. Because quite frankly, Lehner, as a 6-foot-3, 220-pound goalie with a propensity to venture from his crease and physically mix it up with opponents, has occasionally looked like a less refined version of Ron Hextall or Garth Snow over the past few seasons.
While Lehner still has over twice as many penalty minutes (26) as any goalie in the AHL this season, both B-Sens head coach Luke Richardson and assistant coach Steve Stirling insist that Lehner has shown an ability to harness his aggression this season.
“There’s going to be times when Robin wears his emotions on his sleeves,” said Stirling. “It’s a positive trait because it shows that he’s very competitive. The challenge for Robin as a young kid—it will get easier as he matures—is to control his emotions. More often than not, he has; but sometimes he hasn’t. But I think the organization is willing to live with that.”
“This is who Robin Lehner is, and we don’t want to change who he is” added Richardson. “He’s a big personality and he’s boisterous. But the way he is makes him one of the leaders of our team.”
Considering that Lehner has statistically been the AHL’s best goalie this season while no Senators skater is amongst the AHL’s top 20 in scoring, the B-Sens’ goalie has obviously been his team’s statistical leader. But when you add in the fact that the B-Sens are tied with the Portland Pirates as the AHL’s second youngest team and have only nine other players who even appeared in a single game for the team’s 2011 Calder Cup-winning squad; Lehner, despite still being just 21-years-old himself, is a leader of the B-Sens in terms of experience, too.
But while this year’s inexperienced B-Sens don’t have any players amongst the league’s leading scorers, it isn’t as if they are talent deprived. Jakob Silfverberg, a 21-year-old who was the MVP of the Swedish Elite League last season, leads the team in scoring with 26 points (13g, 13a) in what are the first 29 games of his first full season in North America, while Binghamton’s roster also includes former first-round Ottawa Senators draft pick Mika Zibanejad and talented rookies Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Shane Prince and Mark Stone.
If there’s any major obstacle in this year’s new, up-and-coming contingent of B-Sens replicating the 2011 championship team’s success, it’ll be the road they have to take the rest of the season. Because although a potential CBA resolution would significantly impact many AHL teams’ rosters, the East Division (which the Senators are a member of) presents all of its members as demanding of a scheduling gauntlet as there is in professional hockey, outside of the NHL.
The East Division includes a Syracuse Crunch, Tampa Bay Lightning affiliate which has the most points (45) in the AHL this season after winning a Calder Cup while playing as the Norfolk Admirals last season, Hershey Bears and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins teams which have the league’s two best combined records over the past four seasons, and a new Norfolk Admirals team affiliated with the Anaheim Ducks which is stocked with young snipers Kyle Palmieri, Peter Holland, Emerson Etem and Devante Smith-Pelly.
“Every team in our league is always getting better,” said Richardson. “But with what I think we’re capable of, I think we just have to worry about how we’re playing and not worry about anybody else.”
The B-Sens’ attempt at their second championship in three years won’t be hurt by having a goalie consistently playing at the same level he did over a short period of time as a playoff MVP in a championship run two years ago.
And for some reason, I don’t think it’ll hurt the Ottawa Senators’ chances in the NHL very much in the near future, either.
Photos by Getty Images
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|Last Updated on Saturday, 05 January 2013 13:06|