Scanlan: Lehner’s patience tested as Anderson starts again

Patience has never been a long suit for Robin Lehner.

Patience has never been a long suit for Robin Lehner.

The big Swedish goaltender has been hungry for an NHL starter’s job from the moment he became a professional in 2010 with the AHL Binghamton Senators.

This season, the 22-year-old joined the Ottawa Senators for his first full-time placement in the NHL, and he has appeared in 20 games, pretty steady work for a backup goalie. Lately, though, Craig Anderson has been the starter on an almost nightly basis, forcing Lehner to sit out for longer stretches than he has all season, testing his new found maturity.

After shutting out the Minnesota Wild 3-0 on Jan. 14 in Minnesota, Lehner was on the bench Thursday as Anderson lost in 5-4 in overtime to the Montreal Canadiens and again 4-1 to the New York Rangers Saturday.

Some coaches would look at a team surrendering nine goals in two games and make a goaltending switch. After all, Lehner did pitch a shutout in his last start.

Paul MacLean is not one of those coaches. After turning to Lehner on numerous occasions earlier in the season, including a stretch of four starts in five games in early December, the Senators head coach is trying to have Anderson in top form for a playoff push.

MacLean also believes in matchups, and Anderson has beaten the Capitals six straight times heading into Tuesday’s game at the Verizon Center.

As he sits out the game in Washington, barring a relief appearance, it will be Lehner’s 10th on the sidelines in the past 12 Ottawa games. Before the start in Minnesota, he played in Boston Dec. 27, a 5-0 loss. Prior to that, he started Dec. 18 at New Jersey, a 5-2 loss.

When he sat out six consecutive games from Dec. 28 to Jan. 11, it was Lehner’s longest run of inactivity this season.

“It’s pretty new to me,” Lehner says, of his role of playing periodically. He was the go-to guy in Binghamton and, of course, in Sault Ste Marie with the OHL Greyhounds in 2009-10.

“You know what, I knew what I was in for when I went into the season. It’s never fun (to sit) but Craig is a great goaltender and I wait my turn.”

The challenge is to stay sharp, without seeing a lot of game action.

“It’s not as easy as I thought, but I’m doing my best and trying to learn from it,” Lehner says. “Just trying to play the best I can when I get a chance. That’s pretty much what I can do.”

Practice repetitions help, but there is nothing quite like a game to keep a goaltender in step with the rhythm and tempo of NHL competition. Lehner confronted this in Minnesota, when he hadn’t been in a game for more than a week.

“You can do certain stuff in practice but . . when I went into Minnesota I kind of felt like I started from scratch, a little bit,” Lehner said. “I tried to keep it simple. I felt like the first 10, 15 shots, it was kind of hard to control rebounds, I just didn’t feel as comfortable as I wanted. But I played it simple and it kind of came back to me.”

As an example of how a goaltender can show rust, Lehner talked about an inability to handle the puck.

“I’m not a great stickhandler to begin with, but at game speed, sometimes you try to rush it.”

In the end, Lehner handled all 27 Wild shots, sparking some speculation he would be called on again Thursday against the Canadiens. But no, MacLean went back with Anderson, who had won five of his six previous starts.

On the season, Anderson has a 15-10-6 record with a 3.19 goals-against average and .902 save percentage. Last season, Anderson led the NHL with a 1.69 goals-against and .941 save percentage.

Lehner this season is 6-9-3 with a 2.54 goals-against and .926 save percentage.

Considering the Senators play back-to-back games this week, Thursday in Tampa Bay and then Friday in Carolina, Lehner figures to see action either against the Lightning or Hurricanes.

“We’ll see,” Lehner said. “It happens when it happens.”

Unfortunately for him, Lehner hasn’t had a lot of opportunity to play behind the ‘new and improved’ Senators of the past month.

“The biggest thing I see now is we have a more consistent effort throughout the game,” he says. “One of the biggest things defensively is we’re not forcing a lot of things. Not trying to make plays that aren’t there.”

The exception was Saturday afternoon, when the Senators turned the puck over in a couple of egregious giveaways in the third period. Lehner excused the turnovers as “trying to force some things” after falling behind.

And now on to another road trip, where the backup will stand by until called upon.

“It’s absolutely hard but it’s part of the game,” Lehner said. “I do my best to try to be ready. Just keep on battling.

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