Two starts in a row on consecutive nights drew overreaction from some Ranger scribes. With Antti Raanta winning both road games at Winnipeg and Chicago by stopping 43 of 44 shots, that was enough for coach Alain Vigneault to stick with the hot hand over Henrik Lundqvist.
When the Rangers host the Devils tonight at MSG, it’ll be the first time a goalie other than Lundqvist started against New Jersey since Dec. 17, 2006 when Kevin Weekes got the nod. The Rangers lost that game 6-1. Since then, it’s always been number 30 in net for home games against the Devils. For nearly a decade, he had a great rivalry with the opposite legendary number 30 who these days is an assistant GM in St. Louis.
Almost 10 years to the day, here is Vigneault starting a different netminder in a rivalry game on 33rd and 7th Avenue tonight. The explanation is simple. Raanta’s been better. He enters with a 7-1 record, a 1.83 goals-against-average and .939 save percentage in 10 appearances. This will be his 10th start. Lundqvist has struggled with consistency. In 21 games of which 20 are starts, he’s 12-8-1 with a 2.55 GAA and .912 save percentage. So, he sits and gets extra work in.
“I think you know by now, I like to play. A lot of times that’s how I get into a nice rhythm. It’s hard to argue when Antti is playing that well. I understand. It’s about what’s best for the team right now. It’s not about me. I just need to keep my focus on what I can control right now, and that’s my own game,” Lundqvist told New York Post scribe Brett Cyrgalis this morning.
“If [Raanta] didn’t play that well and I would still be sitting here, that would be harder to accept,” Lundqvist said. “Obviously I understand that when he’s played that well. It comes down to what’s best for the team. I’m not going to try to convince anyone when [Vigneault] believes this is what’s best for the group right now.”
In truth, there’s nothing wrong with staying with the hot hand. In his first year as Rangers coach, Vigneault started then rookie Cam Talbot three straight times in late December 2013. Lundqvist was going through a similar phase after signing a long-term contract. At the time, it caused a ruckus. Some even wondered if Talbot should be the goalie. A crazy thought considering all Lundqvist had given to this franchise. Without him, who knows how long they would’ve continued to miss the playoffs. He carried that same ’13-14 roster to a Stanley Cup Final.
Sometimes, goalies go through slumps. Lundqvist has been through it before. He’s always come back stronger. If it allows him extra practice and video sessions, don’t bet against the 34-year old franchise leader in wins and shutouts.
“I have always had in the past, I had opportunities to play [through] ups and downs,” Lundqvist said. “I just play and get into a nice flow. It’s a little different now. You play a couple and you sit out, so it’s a different approach.”
As for Vigneault, who has liked what he’s seen from the 27-year old Raanta, it comes down to this.
“I love Hank, but I love the team more. Antti is on top of his game.”
There’s no debating it. At the moment, it isn’t just that Raanta’s played better. The team has too. They’re more defensively responsible in front of the backup. They were allowing too many shots and quality chances against with Lundqvist in. The last two games have been better. They’ve played headier and steadier.
For whatever reason, that has been a recent fact. They tend to take more risks with Lundqvist back there. Maybe it’s just a different mentality. Knowing they must stay mentally sharp with the backup.
Either way, we’ll find out if Raanta can deliver a third consecutive win. What if he does? The Blackhawks have a return visit to MSG on Tuesday. We’ll get to that part later.