Lee’s return turns out to be boon

The return of Islanders captain Anders Lee had to be sweet for him after missing 217 days of action, and it had to be sweet for the Islanders he was back and productive in their season opener.

Photo from nhl.com

The wait was finally over for Anders Lee. He made his first return on the ice on Thursday night’s Islanders season opener for the first time since March 11 after missing the season with a torn ACL.

For the Islanders captain, it was rewarding to come back after he tried to work hard in rehab to get back on the ice as soon as possible. He wanted to play in the playoffs as the Islanders were going deep. The team thought better of it. They did not want to risk further injury with him and have him miss part of next season.

There was no question he was nervous. His heartbeat pumped faster days before the season opener. Why wouldn’t he after missing so much time? The anticipation of coming back to play hit home with him.

One figured he would be rusty after missing time for 217 days. He picked up where he left off by playing well with Mat Barzal and Kyle Palmieri. He even scored a goal in the second period in the Islanders’ 6-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena. Overall, he took 25 shifts and logged on the ice for 18:57.

He would have loved to celebrate a team win, but instead, he had to settle for an individual win. Just coming back itself was a win, but for him to perform well and contribute is a boon for him and the Islanders.

The Islanders certainly could have used him against the Tampa Bay Lightning in this past spring’s Eastern Conference Final. He could have been a difference-maker when it comes to scoring the ugly goals with his size and presence in the net. He certainly would have been useful in Game 7 in a sense he has the knack to score in a big spot.

Lee showed what the Islanders missed in Game 7 against the Lightning. With the Hurricanes taking a 4-2 lead in the second period, the Islanders needed a response to make sure the game did not get away from them. They needed to show they still had a chance. Their captain showed them the way by cutting the Islanders’ deficit to 4-3 after he won a puck battle at the top of the crease at 14:20 of the second period. It was the type of leadership the Islanders needed there.

The Islanders had a new lease on life with that goal. As bad as they played defensively and as inept as Ilya Sorokin was on the nets, they received a much-needed reset. They peppered the puck at Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Frederik Andersen’s direction to no avail. They entered the second intermission with a 4-3 deficit with momentum in their way.

It was as good as it was going to get. From there, Carolina took over and scored a couple of goals while imposing its will on the Islanders defense. Not even Lee could have saved them in the end.

Again, it was impressive he was able to contribute and stay on as long as he could in this game. The feeling here was no one expected much out of him right away since no one knew what he could have done. Not even Lee or the Islanders knew.

Just seeing him play and work out the kinks would have been a victory in itself for him and the Islanders. They received more than they bargained for.

The Islanders need to hope he can stay healthy all season. He is an integral part of the team’s success. His play serves as tangible evidence. His leadership on the ice serves as intangible evidence. He reflects the team’s identity by grinding it out, winning faceoffs and being tough to face.

It was amazing the Islanders somehow made it to the Eastern Conference Final last season without him once you think about it. They took the Lightning to seven games without him.

They can’t hope to get lucky again if he is out for the season or at any point in time this year. They know it, too.

Sure he is going through his downs. It could be his success came off from adrenaline from playing his first game back. It will be interesting to see how he does in the next few games.

The Islanders need his leadership through his play in order for them to get by in a long five-week trip that will have them go cross-country while the UBS Arena put on the finishing touches. Just his presence itself will help because he serves as the extension of Islanders head coach Barry Trotz.

For Lee, he is just happy to be back. He can work through the kinks as the games go by.

It sure beats watching and rehabbing.

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