CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) — Alex Lyon started this season in the American Hockey League. He actually wasn’t even eligible for the opening two games of the season down there, since he had to first serve a suspension for excessively celebrating a championship in the minors last year.
And now he may be the goalie the Florida Panthers will bet on to start the Stanley Cup playoffs — against the team that just posted the best regular season in NHL history, no less.
Lyons and Panthers vs. Bruins, oh my!
Lyon is expected to be the starting goaltender Monday night when the Florida Panthers visits Boston in Game 1 of an Eastern Conference first-round series. If it happens, it’ll be his NHL playoff debut.
“I never thought I’d be in this situation,” Lyon said.
That’s understandable, for so many reasons.
Let’s start here: The 30-year-old Lyon went undrafted and is essentially a career minor-leaguer — with 227 games in the AHL, including playoffs, and only had 24 entering this season in the NHL. He set a slew of records in college at Yale, led Chicago to the Calder Cup title last season (the suspension came from a double-middle-finger salute during the on-ice celebration in Springfield after winning that championship), and almost certainly is best known for a 94-save, quintuple-overtime AHL playoff win for Lehigh Valley over Chicago five years ago.
“It was crazy,” Lyon said. “…very well could be the No. 1 highlight of my hockey career. It was wild.”
He was on the ice for six hours in real time that night, after also playing the night before. He stopped his final 79 shots of the historic game, including 54 in the overtimes — while facing elimination. They actually ran out of food in the locker room that night, so he resorted to eating cookies and drinking Coca-Cola between periods for some quick energy.
How often does he get asked about that night?
“Not as often as I’d like,” Lyon said.
Fast forward to this past offseason. The Panthers, who already had Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight set as their NHL goalies, signed Lyon to a one-year, two-way contract for $750,000. Had all gone to plan, the Panthers wouldn’t be talking about Lyon at playoff time.
All did not go to plan.
Knight has been away from the team since February and in the NHL’s player assistance program for an undisclosed matter. Bobrovsky got sick before what basically was a must-win game for the Panthers in Toronto last month. Lyon got the start out of desperation.
He won that night. He’s started every game since. He set a team record with 56 saves in regulation in one game along the way. Players blare songs from “The Lion King” in the locker room for a few minutes of what might be best described as off-key karaoke to salute him now after wins. The Panthers rallied to make the playoffs.
The Bruins, who went an unheard-of 65-12-5 in the regular season and won their last eight games even with nothing left to play for, now await.
“If I told you that the guy who won the American League championship last year and elevated himself and gotten into the NHL and now is ready to be a starting goalie in the playoffs for a team, you might say, ‘Well, that’s a crazy notion,’” Panthers general manager Bill Zito said. “It’s not as crazy as you think. It being a 30-year-old guy who’s played a handful of NHL games, now the story becomes a little bit more fun.”
AHL Calder Cup Winner
And, Zito points out, it’s a story that is not entirely unprecedented. Zito was an agent before becoming a GM. One of his clients was goalie Tim Thomas, who didn’t become a full-time starter until his early 30’s and won a Stanley Cup with Boston when he was 37.
Maybe it’s Lyon’s turn to start down such a path. With Bobrovsky and Knight ahead of him, Lyon wasn’t exactly betting on getting any real chance with Florida this season. He now could become the go-to goalie in the playoffs. Go figure.
“He won a Calder Cup last year in the AHL,” Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “That’s no easy feat. He’s been there, he’s done that, and we’re excited to work for him.”
It could be argued that Lyon saved Florida’s season twice. He was the goalie in a win over Boston on Jan. 28 that snapped a three-game slide. Then went 6-1-1 in the final eight games of the regular season to complete the playoff push.
“For me, the ability to see all of this as icing on the cake is something that’s very powerful,” Lyon said. “I just tried to lean into that…make a living playing hockey, really good money, life could be a lot worse for me. I go into every game thinking ‘Here’s worst-case scenario, here’s best-case scenario, is my life gonna be over if this happens? Probably not.’ Life keeps moving forward, so that’s the way that I try to approach it. Just stay in the moment as best I can.”
Author: Tim Reynolds, The Associated Press
Photo Credit: © Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
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