AROUND-ROBIN FOR­MAT

Goalie Lehner was the cen­tral fig­ure in Hawks’ 2019-20 sea­son from start to fin­ish

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - BEN POPE BLACK­HAWKS BEAT bpope@sun­times.com | @BenPopeCST

Few st­ints with an NHL team fol­low as com­pre­hen­sive and com­plete a story arc as Robin Lehner’s 2019-20 sea­son with the Black­hawks.

Lehner joined the Hawks, changed the Hawks, nearly saved the Hawks, was dumped by the Hawks, then — in the fairest way pos­si­ble — ended the Hawks.

The Golden Knights goalie’s hand­shake­line hugs Tues­day night with his old team­mates were some of the most heart­warm­ing mo­ments of the sea­son.

He and Corey Craw­ford ex­changed sev­eral sen­tences; he and Kirby Dach smiled broadly in em­brace.

And af­ter a year of some of the most fas­ci­nat­ing, hon­est, some­times con­tro­ver­sial in­ter­views, Lehner’s fi­nal — likely part­ing — words about the Hawks were as classy as a five-course meal.

“It felt re­ally nice for me to close this out be­cause it’s a bit weird play­ing your old teams, es­pe­cially that group,” he said af­ter Ve­gas’ Game 5 win. “That group is a hell of a group. They treated me re­ally well. [I’ve] got a lot of friends on that team, and [I’m] all about love for that or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

The Hawks meet­ing Lehner in the play­offs was fit­ting.

Lehner’s ex­cel­lent play in four starts in the series, help­ing kill off the Hawks, was most fit­ting of all.

Still, it’s strange to re­al­ize that, a year ago, Lehner hadn’t played a sin­gle minute for the Hawks.

His ten­ure in Chicago lasted only eight months, from gen­eral man­ager Stan Bow­man sign­ing him as a free agent on July 1, 2019, to Bow­man trad­ing him to Ve­gas at the dead­line on Feb. 24.

He made only 31 reg­u­lar-sea­son starts dur­ing those eight months, too. He had a 1610-5 record and .918 save per­cent­age.

This Hawks sea­son can none­the­less be termed as noth­ing less than the “Year of Lehner.”

For starters, those ba­sic stats vastly un­der­state just how good Lehner was. If not for his oft-doc­u­mented shootout woes — a com­i­cally egre­gious flaw in his oth­er­wise im­pec­ca­ble ré­sumé — and the Hawks’ de­fen­sive woes in front of him, his record would’ve been much fur­ther above .500.

And his raw save per­cent­age ac­tu­ally stood at .924 on Jan. 20, his peak be­fore con­cerns about his stalled con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions be­gan af­fect­ing his play. In fact, in terms of goals saved vs. ex­pected, Lehner was the

NHL’s third-best goalie be­tween Open­ing Day and Jan. 20.

He al­most sin­gle-hand­edly pushed the Hawks into the play­off race dur­ing that time, even­tu­ally keep­ing them close enough that the post­sea­son ex­pan­sion to 24 teams scooped them up.

His role in the Hawks’ team chem­istry was ar­guably big­ger.

He housed (and men­tored) Alex Ny­lan­der with his fam­ily. He sup­ported the team af­ter dis­cour­ag­ing losses and kept them in line through dis­trac­tions. His loud voice boomed through ev­ery locker room, from the Hawks’ plush United Cen­ter digs to the spar­tan vis­i­tors’ room in Cal­gary.

“I told him many times that he helped me as a cap­tain,” Jonathan Toews said the day af­ter he was traded. “He helped some of our vet­eran guys that have been here a long time wake up to get back to what makes us good play­ers and good lead­ers.”

Even — per­haps es­pe­cially — with the me­dia, Lehner dom­i­nated the year.

He al­ways an­swered ques­tions thought­fully and hon­estly. He di­rectly con­fronted commentary he dis­agreed with. In a sport that en­cour­ages cookie-cut­ter per­son­al­i­ties, Lehner was un­abashedly his unique self.

Af­ter ev­ery game, af­ter wad­ing through the well-mean­ing clichés of the other pro­vided play­ers, Lehner was al­ready sit­ting there, wait­ing and ready to pro­vide the real anal­y­sis of the night.

Lehner will be an un­re­stricted free agent af­ter this Ve­gas play­off run ends. A re­turn to the Hawks seems im­pos­si­ble, though, con­sid­er­ing the team’s al­ready-crunched cap sit­u­a­tion as well as Lehner’s clearly frayed re­la­tion­ship with Bow­man.

So 2019-20 will go down as the Hawks’ lone Year of Lehner. Con­sid­er­ing how per­fectly his nar­ra­tive went full cir­cle, though, maybe it’s for the best.

JEFF VIN­NICK/GETTY IM­AGES

Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner had some classy things to say about the Hawks af­ter he helped elim­i­nate them.

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