I don’t usually sound off the alarms this early. Following Tuesday night’s 4-2 loss at the Islanders, the Rangers remained tied in points (35) with the Penguins. Pittsburgh moved into first due to playing one less game. The Rangers have played 27 compared with 26 by the Pens. They’re still in good shape with their 17 ROW (regulation/overtime wins) leading the East.
Lately, they’ve been alternating wins and losses. They’re 4-4-0 in their last eight. If you go back to a 4-2 loss at Columbus on Nov. 18 followed by a 3-2 shootout loss at Florida Nov. 20, the Rangers are a mediocre 4-4-2 over 10. A far cry from the team that started by winning 13 of their first 17 (13-4-0). At 17-9-1, they have done well with their 35 points tied with the Pens for second most in the conference trailing only the Canadiens (37), who also have been inconsistent following a hot start.
While it’s true the Rangers have lost key players with forwards Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich both remaining out, they have enough depth to win games. Averaging 3.59 goals-per-game which ranks first in the NHL, they remain one of the league’s explosive offenses. In a year where general manager Jeff Gorton added Michael Grabner, Brandon Pirri, Buchnevich, Zibanejad and key rookie Jimmy Vesey, things have gone right with defenseman Nick Holden fitting in.
With improvements from Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller and rookie defenseman Brady Skjei, there’s a lot to like. Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal have come back stronger and healthier. So, it’s not all negative. As much as the Dan Girardi detractors want to kill him, he’s also been more consistent for the most part. Outside of a couple of games where he struggled, Girardi hasn’t been the number one issue on the back end. It’s been Kevin Klein, who has continued to be up and down. Following a good performance in a win after sitting out a game for Adam Clendening, he had a tough night along with Skjei in the two-goal loss in Brooklyn.
While the defense remains a sticky point for Garden Faithful, it’s been the inconsistent play of franchise goalie Henrik Lundqvist that is most troubling. After getting off to a slow start, he picked it up and was playing much better. For a while at least, things seemed fine. However, he’s unraveled lately. In allowing four goals on 32 shots last night, at least two were his responsibility.
The Isles’ first and third goals were each a case of Lundqvist not being in the right position. On Scott Mayfield’s goal, he wasn’t square to the shooter and allowed a sharp angle shot to beat him short side. We’ll excuse him for Jason Chimera’s goal which really was the direct result of Ranger mistakes following an empty four-minute power play. However, Andrew Ladd’s tally which came 1:22 after Vesey’s goal in the second period was a bad one to allow. It was a play where he overplayed to the right and fell making it a gimme for Ladd, who entered with only two goals in 24 games.
It was the kind of momentum killing goal we’re not used to seeing from Lundqvist. While the team did its best to fight back with Staal scoring on a beautiful passing play from Miller and Kreider, it wasn’t enough. John Tavares would add a power play goal with under nine minutes left in the third to seal it. One in which Lundqvist had no chance on.
The problem as I see it is he’s giving up more and more questionable goals. A lot of it has to do with positioning. There have been too many instances where an off kilter Lundqvist has taken himself out of position by falling to the ice. In a 4-2 win over the Hurricanes, he was better in stopping 26 of 28 shots. However, he did allow a stoppable shot to Victor Rask from the point which tied it. Kreider tallied twice in the third to win it.
In a disappointing 4-3 loss at Buffalo, Lundqvist gave up a hideous goal to Johan Larsson from the red line. In his defense, the puck went off his skate and took an odd bounce. With the Rangers clinging to a one-goal lead with under eight minutes left in regulation, he was beaten by Sabres’ phenom Jack Eichel high glove side on a power play. In truth, it was a deadly shot by a future star. However, Eichel’s game-winner that came 1:43 later was another one he would’ve liked to have back.
On it, a variety of things went wrong. Evander Kane blew past Girardi creating a odd-man rush. With teammates scrambling to get back, Lundqvist fell down and had Eichel’s centering feed for a vacated Kane go off Mats Zuccarello and in. Had he not over committed, the goal doesn’t happen.
One assessment that can be made is that the 34-year old franchise leader in wins (386) and shutouts (60) is under stress. For a second consecutive year, the Rangers are allowing more shots (29.8) than they’re getting (28.6). However, they’re fast paced skating transition game emphasized by coach Alain Vigneault doesn’t emphasize team defense. It’s mostly about offense. With the team successful leading the league in differential (28) at 97 goals for and 69 goals allowed, it’s easy to conclude the style is working.
But in such a system, you also need good skating D and the forwards on the same page. Something that didn’t happen in the second half of last season. No goalie faced more shots than Lundqvist. He succumbed to the pressure in a five-game first round loss to the Penguins. A lopsided series that saw him pulled in the final two games allowing 10 goals on 41 shots. In Game One, an injury forced him out in favor of Antti Raanta.
If there is a difference between last year’s roster and this one, it’s the Rangers’ improved depth with all four lines capable of contributing. With more injuries threatening the team including Rick Nash leaving yesterday’s game with a groin issue and Matt Puempel suffering a concussion, that depth is being tested. After a promising start, Pirri has been invisible. He is without a point or goal in the last 10. A trend that’s coincided with Zibanejad going down.
Though he played better in the last two netting two assists against Carolina and attempting 10 shots last night, Zuccarello is without a goal in 10 too. The Rangers have been getting strong performances from Nash. Stepan has also picked it up following a slow start. Kreider has pitched in playing a better overall game. Hayes has too killing penalties. But he’s slowed down with just one goal over the last seven. Miller is also without one in seven.
The most surprising player has been Grabner. His 13 goals lead the team. He missed last night’s game due to returning home to Austria for his grandmother’s funeral. He netted number 13 in a two-goal win over the Hurricanes.
With production for some players slowing down, the losses of Zibanejad and Buchnevich are being felt. The power play has still clicked at 21.0 percent ranking ninth. But it hasn’t been nearly as effective. Take away that big right shot of Zibanejad from the off wing and it becomes predictable. When Vigneault inserted Clendening at Buffalo, that gave them a right-handed point man. He contributed an assist on a power play goal. However, he took a questionable holding minor that allowed Eichel to tie it up.
With Stepan being primarily a trigger on the left half wall, he isn’t thinking shot like Zibanejad. That makes defending the power play easier for opponents because they don’t have to worry about that lethal one-timer which can create problems. With Buchnevich skilled on the other side, it gave them more options and led to better spacing which can be attributed to Zibanejad.
The thing about the Blueshirts is they aren’t always going to score three-or-more goals. In games that are closer, they need Lundqvist to come through. He’s done it consistently for 12 years. With a career .920 save percentage and a 2.29 goals-against-average entering Tuesday, he’s been the backbone.
Since debuting in ’05-06, Lundqvist has only failed to lead the Rangers to the playoffs once. Without his splendid goaltending, they don’t sniff the Stanley Cup Final in 2014 or two Final Four appearances in 2012 and 2015. A future Hall of Famer, Ranger fans should appreciate what he’s accomplished. Don’t take it for granted.
With him turning 35 next March 2, he’s getting older. That means he can’t do it alone. Gone are the days where Lundqvist could stone opponents with regularity. He once was money on breakaways and shootouts. Not no longer. There are more leaks. Shots that didn’t have a chance are beating him. His 5-on-5 even strength save percentage is still a respectable .919. That is way down from the .934 he produced in ’15-16. For his career, it’s .929.
For those critics who say he’s lost a step on the penalty kill, his save percentage on it was never great to begin with. At .885 entering last night, it’s up from a career worst .840 posted last season. Since ’07-08, his penalty kill save percentage is .879.
The thing that’s most concerning is his positioning. He hasn’t looked right. Confidence seems to be lacking for the former Vezina winner. The question is why is he so off balance. He’s been flopping around a lot more than usual. This is something that must be fixed. If it isn’t, his GAA of 2.55 and .912 save percentage could become more the norm. An ungodly thing to say about an All-Star goalie we’re used to seeing more consistency from.
So, is it just a slump? He’s had them in the past and been able to overcome it. Who can forget when Vigneault in his first season played Cam Talbot three straight games? He was able to figure it out and took that team as far as it possibly could go. Lundqvist is responsible for the team rallying from 3-1 deficits against the Pens and Caps in consecutive postseasons. Both coming in the second round.
There’s so much to praise him over. So, this isn’t about blasting him. It’s about what the eyes are seeing. There’s still plenty of season left. If the Rangers are going to be successful, it’ll still be on the broad shoulders of Lundqvist. Vigneault must continue to give Raanta starts so his starter gets enough rest and remains fresh. With Raanta 5-1 in seven starts with a 2.20 GAA and .931 save percentage, there’s no reason not to.
Lundqvist is still this team’s best shot. The offensive improvement is significant. So is the health of a blue line which hasn’t had any big injuries. Can Lundqvist rebound? They’re counting on it.