Islanders coach Barry Trotz has joked that, had his team gotten past the Lightning in last season’s playoffs, Anders Lee would have been “knocking on our door” saying he was ready to come back for the Stanley Cup finals. But Lee, in an introspective mood before the Islanders’ contest Tuesday night against the Penguins, admitted it took him quite a long time to feel normal again following a torn ACL.
As his teammates were trying to win a championship last summer, the most Lee could do was watch and devote energy to his rehab. Once he did return to the ice at the beginning of this season, it took some time for the production to come back, and for him to stop noticing his knee.
“You wonder,” Lee said, “how much longer that might take.”
The answer seems to have been approximately half of a season. Lee’s pre- and post-All-Star splits tell that story – 15 points in 34 games before the break, 26 points in 31 games since heading into Tuesday.
It’s not quite that simple, as the uptick has also coincided with Trotz retooling his first line, and playing Lee with Brock Nelson and Anthony Beauvillier. In 23 games together, that group is the Islanders’ highest-scoring line, per MoneyPuck, with 17 goals, while Lee and Nelson combined for 24 in a torrid month of March.
In what amounts to a lost season for the Islanders, it’s something to take into next season that Nelson hit a career-high in goals, with 33 entering Tuesday, and was nearing a career-high in points.
“You think about it a little bit,” Nelson said. “End of the day, it’s about the team and you’d like to have success with the team. The individual stuff kind of comes with it. ”
Though not officially eliminated from the playoffs, the Islanders are at the point at which everything they do can be pulled through the keyhole of how it affects their summer and the season to follow.
Lee and Nelson are not going anywhere. And both will be going into next season with momentum.
Over the past 13 months, Lee went through those moments of wondering. So even with his team out of it, he smiled on Tuesday, admitting how good it was to feel like himself again.
He had broken a bone before, but that only took a few weeks of straightforward recovery. This was different. Recovery was ongoing, even after he returned to the ice. Mentally, Lee pushed himself through it, but he wanted to stop thinking about his knee in everything he did.
“I think there were moments throughout the season where you feel a certain way physically,” Lee said. “You get yourself back into the groove and prepare from the six months that was between the surgery and the beginning of the year, and then seven months before Game 1. You don’t feel like you felt before. So that takes time to work itself out. ”
The nice thing about time, though, is that it passes at the same rate whether you want it to or not.
“I think it’s validation of all the hard work he’s put in,” Trotz said. “There’s a little bit of a glass ceiling until they break through it, and I think he has. And I think he’s got his game to a level, in terms of production-wise, where it was pre-injury, I guess. And that’s a good statement. ”