BOSTON - What if Robin Lehner is NHL ready right now?
For that matter, what if Ben Bishop is also good to go?
What would Craig Anderson — a proven puck stopper at a friendly cap hit of $3.187 million for the next three years — fetch the Senators in an off-season trade?
A goal-scoring right winger for Jason Spezza? A depth defenceman, a prospect and a draft choice? More?
Whatever, it would be a pretty good return on the return for Brian Elliott, who 13 months ago appeared to have no value at all.
But back to Lehner, the goalie of the moment and star of the day in Boston. This is about him.
Are you surprised he was able to rise to the occasion after the reports of his struggles in the minors earlier this season? Shouldn’t be. He was and still is the real deal.
Why the inconsistencies in Bingo the first five months? That’s easy.
Imagine you’re Lehner, a fully grown 20-year-old brimming with confidence, before but especially after doing all you can possibly do at the AHL-level. You led your team to a championship. You were the MVP of the playoffs. You know you’re good and you’ve proved it as a pro.
And yet, the next fall, all the guys who were at your Calder Cup party are rewarded with jobs in Ottawa except the one who was most responsible for it being thrown. You.
That doesn’t seem fair, does it?
You know you’re better than Alex Auld and you probably even believe you’re better than Anderson, but you do as you’re told and you go back to Binghamton and the buses for another long winter. Your biggest challenge now is just trying to forget about the glory and big paycheques and beautiful city to call home that waits ahead.
Must be very difficult though. Must be almost impossible to stay focused. It’s understandable that your play might slip.
Sure enough, it did.
When he was up last season and also during training camp in the fall, Lehner often said he’d improve faster by being a backup in Ottawa, and taking NHL shots in practice, than he would in Binghamton.
Senators management disagreed, remembering examples of goalies that were rushed, that didn’t pay their dues and learn the game in the AHL. That wouldn’t happen with Lehner. He was getting another year in the bushes whether he liked it or not.
But what if Lehner is different? What if he is right and management is wrong?
He sure is doing what he can to prove a point every chance he gets in the NHL this season.
On Tuesday, with the Senators pretty much in the position of having to win or forget about any chance of catching Boston for the division title, Lehner made 32 saves to shut out the defending Cup champions in their home rink. Last spring’s AHL playoff MVP outperformed last spring’s NHL playoff MVP —- and Tim Thomas was merely sensational.
Lehner has now played three games for Ottawa this season. He has won each of them and allowed four goals. His save percentage is .954.
Anderson’s hand injury could be a blessing in disguise. Because of it, Lehner is getting the chance to show he’s ready. When the incumbent is healthy, the Senators might actually have a 1 and 1A situation, or at least a 1 and someone-the-coach-can-trust-with-a-start situation.
Anderson and Lehner might even become Lehner and Anderson in the playoffs. Might not, but it might.
At least the potential is there.
At the present, Lehner is refusing to do any speculating.
Asked by reporters if the shutout might lead him to a permanent spot in Ottawa, Lehner shrugged.
“I don’t have any comments about that,” he said.
Asked for an injury update on Anderson, he replied: “I don’t know anything.”
Asked where the 1-0 win over the powerful Bruins six weeks from the end of the season ranked among his personal accomplishments, Lehner said, “It’s right up there.”
“This was huge for me,” he added. “I’m just going to try to keep building.”
Asked if he feels he’s ready to be a full-time NHLer, he shrugged again.
“I have no comment on that,” Lehner said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
From this angle, it looks like the future is here for the Senators goalie of the future. At the very least, his time in Binghamton should be over.
STANDING STRAIGHT UP: Beating the Bruins put the Senators within striking distance of the division lead. They trail Boston by one point and, before Wednesday’s games, were also one back of Pittsburgh for fourth place in the Eastern Conference and home-ice advantage in Round 1 of the playoffs. While many teams still have “games in hand” on Ottawa, the Senators are eight points ahead of ninth-place Winnipeg, and both them and the Jets have actually played the same number of games.
“We’re still growing and building our team and foundation and yes, we’re having some success and yes, we’re real pleased with where we are in the standings,” said coach Paul MacLean, who gave his players Wednesday off as he and the coaching staff prepared for Friday’s home game against Chicago. “But I don’t think we’re in a position to sit there and say with tons of confidence we’re here and we’re locked into anything.
“We just try to continue to take it on a daily basis and a game to game basis, and keep trying to get a little better.”