By AJ Atchue
After a somewhat uneven regular season as a rookie, it turns out that Binghamton goaltender Robin Lehner was saving his best work of the year for the postseason. Now, the Swedish backstop is a big reason why the Senators are 2011 Calder Cup champions.
A second-round draft pick (46th overall) by the Ottawa Senators in 2009, Lehner began the 2011 Calder Cup Playoffs in the same spot where he had spent much of the regular season – on the bench, backing up fellow B-Sens goaltender Barry Brust.
Lehner, one of the Ottawa organization’s most highly-touted prospects, did appear in 22 regular-season contests for Binghamton and posted a 10-8-2 mark with a respectable 2.70 goals-against average.
He also played eight NHL games with the big club in Ottawa, but at just 19 years of age, found himself behind Pascal Leclaire, Brian Elliott and, later, newcomer Craig Anderson on the organization’s depth chart. He also missed some time to injury, further hindering his ability to make a positive early impression.
And Brust, coming off a superb regular season which helped Binghamton qualify for the playoffs down the stretch courtesy of the Eastern Conference’s crossover berth, deserved the opportunity to stay between the pipes.
The script, however, did not go as planned.
The Senators promptly fell into a 3-1 series hole in their opening-round match-up against the Manchester Monarchs, and the boys from New York’s Southern Tier seemed destined for a quick exit from their first playoff appearance since 2005.
What’s more, Brust and the B-Sens defense surrendered five goals in Game 3 of that series and six goals in Game 4.
First-year Binghamton coach Kurt Kleinendorst decided a change had to be made, and it may well have saved his club’s season.
With the Senators facing elimination on home ice in Game 5, Kleinendorst turned to Lehner and gave the rookie his first playoff start. Though he allowed four goals that night, Binghamton prevailed on an overtime marker by Kaspars Daugavins to send the series back to Manchester.
In a Game 6 which can only be described as epic, Lehner really began to make his presence felt.
He kept his club alive by stopping 51 of 52 shots as the teams traded chances through regulation and more than 30 minutes of tense overtime hockey before Senators defenseman Geoff Kinrade finally buried the game-winning goal midway through the second extra session.
Not only did Lehner top the 50-save plateau, but he stared down Manchester’s Bud Holloway in a double-overtime penalty shot which, if successful, would have sent the B-Sens packing right then and there. A little more than five minutes after Lehner denied Holloway, Binghamton was on its way to Game 7.
“It was pretty unbelievable that the entire season came down to that one shot, a penalty shot. But it was a pretty sweet feeling (to stop it),” Lehner said following the series.
Lehner made 32 more saves as the Senators earned another overtime victory in Game 7 the next night, completing the comeback from 3-1 down in games and moving on to the Atlantic Division Finals vs. Portland.
From there, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
Once he was inserted in the crease, Lehner rattled off a 14-4 record with a 2.10 goals-against average, a .939 save percentage, and a league-leading three shutouts in 19 appearances. Binghamton put together a pair of five-game winning streaks with Lehner tending goal and never dropped back-to-back contests.
The native of Gothenburg, Sweden, was rewarded with the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as Most Valuable Player of the Calder Cup Playoffs following Binghamton’s championship-clinching 3-2 win at Houston on Tuesday.
“It’s hard to describe the feeling. I’m so happy. I’m so relieved,” Lehner told the Ottawa Sun following the game. “This is the biggest thing I’ve ever done. I have a lot of guys to thank.”
Lehner becomes just the fourth teenaged goaltender to win a Calder Cup in the AHL’s 75-year-history, joining Carey Price (2007), Patrick Roy (1986), and Gordie Bell (1943).
Given all he had to overcome over the course of the year to attain the AHL’s ultimate prize, Lehner relished in the moment and wasn’t about to back down to anyone.
“All you naysayers and critics, you can go hide somewhere,” he told the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin. “You can never take this away from me. I’m not saying I’m going to go play in the NHL (right away). That’s a long road ahead. But you can never take away from me that I’m a Calder Cup champion and that I got the MVP here."
Kleinendorst, whose roster changed almost on a daily basis late in the year as reinforcements were summoned to the rebuilding parent club in Ottawa and his own players went down to injury, did a masterful job just to get Binghamton into the playoffs.
His decision to switch to Lehner four games in sure worked out well, and the coach is quick to place credit at the feet of his 19-year-old goaltender.
“We don’t win it unless Robin’s between the pipes,” Kleinendorst said following Tuesday’s clinching victory. “I’m not saying that Brust wouldn’t have been able to get it done, but there’s no question that Robin was the difference.”
That’s what a most valuable player is made of, and as a result, the city of Binghamton is celebrating its first championship in 29 seasons of AHL hockey.
For Lehner, his rookie season couldn’t have ended any better.