One year ago from Friday was the night that New York Islanders captain Anders Lee’s season came to a sudden end.
After getting tied up with Pavel Zacha of the New Jersey Devils, an awkward roll and fall turned out to be a torn ACL — keeping him sidelined throughout the remainder of the regular season and the Islanders’ run to the Stanley Cup semifinals.
“It was really hard to not be able to be on the ice with your team,” Lee said back in September. “It’s tough when you’re going through recovery at the same time. But the boys, we all took on that challenge and the way they played on the ice was extremely inspiring to me. We both fed off each other… it was a good run.”
At that time, Lee and the Islanders were tabbed as one of the favorites to win the Eastern Conference and make their first Stanley Cup Final since 1984.
That vision hasn’t gone to plan.
The Islanders’ playoff hopes are hanging by a thread — roughly 3% — during a tumultuous season that has provided hurdles at every twist and turn. Lee himself has tried to work his way back to the consistent 20-plus-goal scorer that he was before the 2020-21 season, dealing with a bout of COVID in the process of his full rehabilitation.
“There is an expectation for where you want Anders to be and realistically, there’s not a defined date,” Islanders head coach Barry Trotz said. “But everyone thinks it takes a whole year to get that comfort.”
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In 47 games entering Thursday night’s matchup with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Lee has recorded 16 goals and seven assists — a two-goal night on Monday against the Colorado Avalanche providing his 200th career goal in the process. Only 11 Islanders have scored that many goals with the franchise.
But overall, it’s been a down season for the captain, who has spent time playing on the third line rather than his usual first-line duties after Mathew Barzal was lost to a lower-body injury. Getting full strength back to play hockey is one thing, to play Lee’s brand of hockey that includes a bruising style that lives in front of the opposition’s net is something completely different.
And that return to full strength doesn’t always have to do with just his leg.
“It’s a mental comfort,” Trotz said. “When Anders is moving his feet and using his power, he can be pretty effective. What I liked with Anders… he’s not a guy that you probably notice over the 200 feet. His strength is ‘can I get to the puck 10 feet away to keep the puck alive in the offensive zone.’
“He still has to work back… because he’s not as easy a skater like a [Noah Dobson] or [Barzal]. He has to work through that. Those man-on-man tight-area battles that you have a big defensive leaning on you where you have to make a play out of that and spin out of that, that’s a quality he has.”