When it comes to hockey, good goaltending can carry you a long way. That rings even more true in the playoffs, where a hot goaltender can carry you all the way to a Stanley Cup. Catching fire and staying hot for two months is much easier than doing so over the course of an 82 game season.
This year, the Islanders turned in maybe the most surprising season in the league, totaling 103 points, good for second in the Metropolitan division and home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. There were many contributing factors to the Islanders’ success this year, but none more so than the play of goaltenders Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss. Together, Lehner and Greiss only allowed a combined 196 goals against, giving them the William M. Jennings Trophy for least amount of goals allowed with at least 25 games played.
They also had the unusual role of neither guy ever being designated the No. 1 goalie for the Islanders, splitting time almost the entire season. Lehner was credited with 46 games played and Greiss hit the ice in a total of 43 games. It doesn’t matter who will be in net for the Islanders when the series begins on Wednesday, their goaltender play has been a core strength all season and they will hope that carries over into the playoffs.
Against the Penguins this season, each goalie started two games, going 2-1-1 with a .903 save percentage. All in all, the Penguins were rather successful against the goaltending duo this season, holding them to a collective save percentage much lower than their season totals. If the Penguins hope to advance past the Islanders and keep their hopes of a third Stanley Cup in four seasons alive, solving the Lehner-Greiss pairing will be paramount to their chances.
Let’s meet the two guys who will be tasked with keeping the Penguins offense in check.
We will start with Robin Lehner since he played more games this season and had a slightly higher save percentage than his partner Greiss. Lehner signed a one-year deal with the Islanders last season after struggling with the Buffalo Sabres. All Lehner did was come over and post the best statistical season of his career and help lead the Islanders back into the playoffs.
From a standard statistical standpoint all the way down to the nitty gritty analytics, Lehner posted one of the best seasons by a goalie in the NHL. He set career highs in wins (25), save percentage (.930), and goals against average (2.13). All of these numbers are marked improvements from his time with the Sabres, and the Islanders were rewarded for taking a waiver on him last offseason.
While his standard goalkeeping numbers really pop out, it’s his underlying analytics that really tell the story of Lehner’s season and just how important his play was to the Islanders overall team success.
The really telling stat here for Lehner is his goals allowed vs. his expected goals (xG) allowed. His xG registers at 108.7 this season but he only ended up allowing a total of 94 in his 46 games played. That equals out to a difference of nearly 15 goals, taking some pressure off the Islanders offense and allowing them to register a few extra wins in the standings. His xG/game hovered right around 2.3 goals this season, another stellar number posted by Lehner.
Some credit must go the Islanders defense here as well; they did an excellent job in front of Greiss keeping the high danger chances to a minimum. Keeping chances to the outside and away from the slot area made the work much easier on Lehner.
If it wasn’t Lehner getting the work done in goal this season for the Islanders, then it was Thomas Greiss holding down the fort. This was Greiss’ fourth season with the Islanders and by far his best since going the team in 2015-16. He struggled initially out of the gate, playing in only six games in October, but rebounded nicely to share the Jennings Trophy with Lehner by season’s end.
Compared to his cohort, Greiss put up equally impressive numbers across the board. Posting career highs in save percentage (.927) and goals against average (2.28). His 23 wins were the second highest total of his career and came just behind Lehner for the team lead. Like Lehner, these numbers were a major improvement over his last season totals and a major reason for the Islanders team wide turnaround and return to the playoffs.
A glance at Greiss’ underlying numbers for this season tell much of the same story as we saw with his goaltending partner.
Once again, what really sticks out here for Greiss is the difference between his xG and actual goals allowed this season. With an xG sitting at 100.8, Greiss came in well under that mark, allowing a paltry 87 during the campaign, a difference of 13 goals. Those 13 goals go a long way in helping your team win hockey games. Like Lehner, his goals xG/game held steady around 2.3 for the season.
Once again, while there is no taking away from the season Greiss put together, you must acknowledge the work of the Islanders defense in front of him. While Greiss did face more high danger chances than Lehner as shown in the graphic above, the team was able to keep much of the threat at bay, forcing shots from a distance.
The Penguins offense vs. the Islanders goaltending will be one of the key matchups of this series and could very well decide to moves and who goes home. At this moment, it’s hard to say which goalie the Penguins will see in Game 1 on Wednesday, but Lehner is the current hot hand. He has started five of the last seven games, including a shutout in Game 82 against the Capitals to clinch home ice advantage in the first round.
Islanders coach Barry Trotz was more than willing to roll out both goalies on any given night regardless of how they played the game before. It’s hard to imagine Trotz sticking with a regular rotation in the playoffs, but stranger things have happened. For years, Trotz had the ever-reliable Braden Holtby to fall back on in Washington, but now he has a pair of goaltenders who can go out steal a game. There’s no doubting the season both Lehner and Greiss have put together, allowing just 2.3 expected goals per game while saving an average of 14 more goals than expected.
There is a good chance we see both goalies at some point in this series if one doesn’t seem to be getting the job done. If Greiss ends up getting some playing time, hopefully its in Pittsburgh so the fans can remind him just how loud that building can get.
If any team has the weapons to break this Islanders goaltending duo it's the Pittsburgh Penguins. Having the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Jake Guentzel, and a host of depth guys who can produce is a nice tool to have at your disposal when taking on a top goaltender. If they can pressure the Islanders defense and create high danger chances on whoever they face, the goals should come, and with it, a series win.