BUFFALO — Robin Lehner is finally secure in the National Hockey League and Craig Anderson is finally ready to return to the Ottawa Senators’ lineup.
After Wednesday’s trade of Ben Bishop to the Tampa Bay Lightning for rookie left winger Cory Conacher, the three-headed goaltending monster is no more.
It’s now all about Anderson and Lehner.
Following practice Thursday at Harvard University and prior to the club’s charter flight to Buffalo for Friday’s game against the Sabres, Senators coach Paul MacLean wasn’t ready to announce his starter. It’s crystal clear, however, that everyone within the organization has confidence in either netminder.
For Lehner, it’s a dream come true.
After years of fighting for this moment, of delivering extended periods of goaltending brilliance along with occasional signs of immaturity, he has now arrived on the big stage for good. Considering everything he has been through already, it’s surprising that he’s still only 21 years old.
As is typically the case, Lehner let it all hang out Thursday when discussing what the moment means to him.
“It’s mixed feelings, it’s tough to see (Bishop) go out,” Lehner said. “We’ve been really good friends all year. It has been a competitive situation for me and him, especially since we started in Binghamton together (during the lockout). He’s just a great guy.
“Then again, for me, that’s my first breakthrough in my career, too.”
While Lehner has played in 22 NHL games during the past three seasons, every one of those has been because of an injury to one of the two goaltenders ahead of him on the depth chart.
“Now, it’s because of something I’ve worked on and the organization felt that I deserved. I really appreciate that. This organization took me in a few years ago when no one really knew about me. I’ve had some ups and downs and they really moulded me into a good prospect. Then they kept going and turned me into a professional. A lot of credit goes to them.”
Over time, Lehner has learned the value of patience.
“I’m young, I’m 21 years old and it has always been my age against me. I really pushed the envelope and probably haven’t made it easy for the management up here. That’s fine, that’s who I am. They’ve taught me how to step back and relax a little bit.”
Anderson, meanwhile, is raring to go. His six-week absence since spraining his ankle against the New York Rangers on Feb. 21 was far longer than he originally expected, but he still sits first in the NHL in goals-against average (1.49) and save percentage (. 952).
“I’m pretty anxious,” he said. “It has been a long time now and I’ve watched a lot of hockey. It’s about time for me to get that feeling back, where I can help the team and feel like I’m accomplishing something.”
Just the same, Anderson marvels at the “resiliency” he has seen on the team while being out.
“We find ways to be in every game, we find ways to get two points,” he said “Whether it was (Bishop) or (Lehner) standing on their heads for a night to steal us two points or we had big games from young guys, everyone is pulling together at different times.”
Anderson acknowledges that “when there are three goalies and two nets, it’s a crowd,” but he can’t say enough about the departing Bishop.
“He’s a terrific goalie, he’s big in the net (6-foot-7, 214 pounds) and he moves really well,” he said. “He has the ability to be a game changer. He changed games for us and now, given the opportunity to battle for the No. 1 job with another guy his size (6-foot-6, 198-pound Anders Lindback), well, that makes for good writing. He has the desire to be a No. 1 (goalie) and definitely the ability.”