Keith Allain doesn’t often check the messages on the phone in his Yale office, and when he does, and when those messages are cold calls from friends or family of teenage hockey players, he doesn’t usually return them.
The Bulldogs coach was lucky, then, to take the call from Pro Lyon — Yale, Class of 1954 — seriously when he implored the coaches at his alma mater to come to Baudette, Minnesota, and watch his grandson play.
“Sometimes we follow up and sometimes we don’t have time,” Allain said. “I asked my assistant coach to check out this kid Alex Lyon.”
At the Lake of the Woods School, the assistant found a school of just a few hundred students, where more than half of the 25 boys in Lyon’s graduating class played for the hockey team and its star goaltender stopped nearly 95 percent of the shots he faced.
There were a few schools looking into Lyon, though not many, and so he committed to Yale, but only enrolled after spending two years playing as one of the older players in the United States Hockey League (USHL) first. There weren’t many indications this goalie was going to be the key to an NHL team’s playoff hopes a little more than a decade later, as he is right now for the Florida Panthers.
“I never thought I’d be in this situation this year. I never thought I would be in this situation 10 years ago, 15 years ago,” Lyon said Saturday. “The ability to see all of this as icing on the cake, I think, is something that’s very powerful and I just try to lean into that.”
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Now 30, Lyon had only started 31 games in his NHL career before taking over the Panthers last month when star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky was sick, and now he’s Florida’s best hope to upset the Boston Bruins in the first round of the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs, starting each of the Panthers’ first two games in their first-round series with the Presidents’ Trophy winners.
Game 1 was his ninth game in a row as Florida’s starter and he stopped 26 of 29 shots Monday, giving him a .938 save percentage since taking over for Bobrovsky in March. After never starting more than even 11 games in a season before this one, Lyon has become one of the most improbable stories of the 2022-23 NHL season — perhaps the biggest single reason the Panthers rallied to make the Stanley Cup playoffs and one of several reasons they truly believe they can upset the Bruins in Round 1.
He’s also, as unlikely as it may seem, ready for this moment.
He learned work ethic in his hometown, where his high school had only about 200 students, and he had to spend his weekends and summers traveling hundreds of miles to Minneapolis-St. Paul to face stiffer competition. He learned how to handle anything from his 200-plus games in the AHL, where he won a Calder Cup last year and even had a game with 94 saves during the 2018 Calder Cup playoffs. Even this year, he learned what it can be like to face NHL pressure — both times Florida has called upon him to start multiple consecutive games, the Panthers appeared to be on the verge of tumbling out of the playoff race, only for Lyon to keep them alive.
“Those are the two stretches that we would talk about adversity … but maybe those were the two best times for him to come in because we were banged up and we had players out of our lineup, and we were schedule heavy at those times,” coach Paul Maurice said Saturday. “Not that the pressure’s off, but what we needed from our players is what we got from our goaltender, as well. We needed to scratch, and claw and survive.”
Small town to big moments
Lyon was made for it. His hometown is a small fishing city and one of the northernmost points in the continental United States, with a population of less than 1,000 and a local high school with fewer than 250 students. Until he was 6, he lived on an island on the Lake of the Woods and went to school at a one-room schoolhouse. Once he started blossoming into a promising goalie, Lyon spent his free time traveling across Minnesota to take part in elite camps and high-profile tournaments.
It helped him become the best goalie in the state as a senior, winning Minnesota’s Frank Brimsek Award, and formulated a plan with his future coaches to go spend two years in the USHL to get ready for college hockey. He landed with USHL Omaha and was supposed to be the backup in Year 1, only he was so good the Lancers traded away their other goaltender after just two games.
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In college, the same sort of thing happened. He was one of two goalies in his class and supposed to split time in net, and still wound up starting 30 of 32 games for the defending national champion. He was the ECAC Hockey Co-Rookie of the Year in 2014; led the nation in save percentage, goals against average and shutouts in 2015; and then so good in 2016 he was able to leave New Haven, Connecticut, with a year of eligibility remaining to sign with the Flyers.
“The moment was never too big for Alex,” Allain said.
In Philadelphia, he never got those same sort of chances, though, and the same thing happened when he left the Flyers for the Hurricanes in 2021. Even this year, Lyon wasn’t supposed to be anything more than insurance for the Panthers, the third-string option behind Bobrovsky and fellow goaltender Spencer Knight.
AHL records and NHL chances
In January, he got his first real chance, filling in for six straight games — including two back-to-back sets — when both Bobrovsky and Knight were out, and he won three, capping the run by anchoring an overtime win against Boston in the final game before the All-Star break.
Last month, he got another chance, with Bobrovsky sick and Knight in the NHL’s player assistance program for personal reasons, and hasn’t given up the net since. He took over after Florida lost four in a row to tumble out of postseason position and the Panthers promptly won six straight to get back into the Cup playoffs.
“It’s been fun to watch,” defenseman Josh Mahura said Thursday. “You see his confidence grow every day and, as a team, our confidence keeps growing in him. I think he’s been kind of the catalyst of everything.”
It’s an incredible feat and still one he’s able to put into perspective. In his mind, it isn’t what defines him. It might not even go down as the highlight of his hockey-playing career.
No matter how this playoff run ends, Lyon probably won’t have a game with 94 saves, when the game drags on through so many overtimes that all there is left to eat in the locker room during intermissions are cookies and Coca-Cola. It’s still, he said, “the No. 1 highlight of my hockey career” and it certainly helped him make a living playing the sport.
It also, along with so much else he faced to get to this point, helped prepare him for now.
“I go into every game thinking, All right, here’s worst-case scenario, here’s best-case scenario. Is my life going to be over if this happens? Probably not. Life keeps moving forward if this happens,” Lyon said. “It’s just kind of gravy at this point.”
This and that
▪ Sam Bennett returned to the lineup for Game 2 on Wednesday at TD Garden. The center, who had missed 13 straight games with a soft-tissue injury, will go back to his place on the second line, next to superstar right wing Matthew Tkachuk
▪ Patrice Bergeron missed his second straight game to open this first-round series. The Bruins center sat out Game 1 with an illness and is now dealing with an injury.
▪ Florida signed defenseman Uvis Balinskis to a one-year, entry-level contract Tuesday. The 26-year-old Latvian notched 35 points in 50 games in the Czech Extraliga this year, leading all defensemen in goals and points. His deal will begin at the start of the 2023-24 NHL season.