When it comes down to the goalie situation with the Rangers, it isn’t a crisis as some lost souls who like to stir up controversy would have you believe. At the present, backup Antti Raanta has outplayed starter Henrik Lundqvist. In allowing one goal on 63 shots and winning his last three shutouts by posting consecutive shutouts, Raanta deserves his fourth straight in tonight’s MSG rematch against the Blackhawks.
The 27-year old Finn has earned it. He brings in a 8-1-0 record with a 1.65 goals-against-average, .943 save percentage with those two shutouts at Chicago and home against New Jersey. It’s hard to believe GM Jeff Gorton only parted with Ryan Haggerty for Raanta during the summer of 2015. Chalk it up to another great move by an executive who has done a splendid job with this year’s roster that enters play 20-9-1 tied in points (41) with the Penguins.
It was never going to be easy for Raanta to replace Cam Talbot. The former popular backup who carried the ’14-15 roster to a President’s Trophy when Lundqvist was out. The Rangers owed it to Talbot to let him go elsewhere and become a number one goalie. He’s now the number one for the Oilers, who are tied with the Ducks with 35 points at the top of the Pacific Division. It’s worked out well for both sides with the Rangers able to find a suitable replacement.
In his first year on Broadway, Raanta won 11 games while posting a 2.25 GAA, .919 save percentage with a shutout in 24 games. Lundqvist got into 65 games and won 35 games with a 2.48 GAA, .920 save percentage and four shutouts. Still respectable numbers even though the goals-against-average was a career low. But his .920 save percentage was proof that he still got the job done despite a below average defense that got pinned in its zone allowing over 30 shots. The first round five-game lopsided defeat to the Pens was predictable. It was indicative of the inconsistencies of the ’15-16 Rangers.
Lundqvist had a longer off-season to recover. Now 34, he was expected to bounce back. Nobody wants to win more than him. It’s true that when the team plays in front of him, they’re not as sharp. From a defensive standpoint, they allow more shots and give up more quality chances. It still doesn’t fully explain his 12-8-1 record with a 2.55 GAA and .912 save percentage. Both would be career worsts.
It’s worth noting that we’re not even at the Christmas break yet. There’s still plenty of time for Lundqvist to turn it around. He’s been through slumps before. In ’13-14, coach Alain Vigneault started Talbot three times in a row in late December 2013. Predictably, panic set in with the reactionary media calling it a “goaltender controversy.”
It wasn’t. At the time, Lundqvist was in a similar rut and needed a mental break. Talbot provided it. When Vigneault went back to him at Tampa and Florida to end 2013, he was back to being himself. The same guy who has carried this franchise since joining them in ’05-06. A strong January 2014 led to a big second half with Lundqvist winning 33 games with a 2.36 GAA, .920 save percentage and five shutouts. He would carry the team on his back to its first Stanley Cup appearance since ’94. They lost to the Kings in a very close five games with all three games in LA decided by overtime.
A year later, Lundqvist suffered a sprained blood vessel when he took a puck to the throat in a game against Carolina. Astonishingly, he played the next game and won against Florida before it was discovered. Had he kept playing, it would’ve been life threatening. Talbot took over and got on a roll winning 21 games with a 2.21 GAA, .926 save percentage with six shutouts. When Lundqvist returned near the end of the ’14-15 season, he still won 30 games with a similar 2.25 GAA, .922 save percentage and five shutouts.
That he was able to recover from such a serious injury which he never should’ve played with is a miracle. He was certainly good enough in helping the Rangers eliminate the Penguins in five games on Carl Hagelin’s overtime winner. The second round proved to be a real test with the team falling behind to the Capitals 3-1. It literally came down to the final frantic two minutes before Derek Stepan set up Chris Kreider’s tying goal with 1:41 left in regulation. Stepan dropped a pass for Ryan McDonagh who won Game 5 in OT. After clinging on for dear life in a one-goal Game 6 win, they needed sudden death before Stepan steered home a Dan Girardi rebound past Braden Holtby for a dramatic 2-1 Game 7 win sending them to a second straight Conference Final.
The backbone was Lundqvist, who was in for the Rangers’ second consecutive 3-1 comeback in the second round. The prior year, they rallied for the first time in franchise history from a 3-1 deficit by defeating the Pens. A team they had never beat before. That team rallied around Martin St. Louis, who lost his mother France to a heart attack. Without Lundqvist’s goaltending, the comeback never happens. He stopped 102 of the final 105 shots.
For over 11 years, a 2000 seventh round afterthought has been responsible for the Rangers revival. Lundqvist was taken 205th overall by former European scout Christian Rockstrom. The Swede starred for hometown Frolunda HC where he delivered a championship before finally signing to come over. I followed him with the hope he would be the next great goalie for the Blueshirts.
After splitting time with respectable veteran Kevin Weekes his rookie year in ’05-06, Lundqvist took the job. It’s amazing to think back and realize he won 30 games with a 2.24 GAA, .922 save percentage and two shutouts as a rookie. That special season also included delivering a gold medal to Sweden at the Olympics with a point blank save to deny Olli Jokinen and preserve a one-goal win over rival Finland. An injury prevented him from being the same goalie. Weekes replaced him in a lopsided first round sweep against the Devils. Jaromir Jagr also hurt his shoulder ending his season at MSG in Game 3. He deserved to win the Hart setting a franchise record with 54 goals and 123 points. But Joe Thornton beat him out after going to San Jose and winning the Art Ross.
Those Ranger teams were fun. Coached by Tom Renney, whose obsession with odd suits and “Sweet Caroline,” they played a European style featuring Jagr, Michael Nylander, Martin Straka, Petr Prucha, Martin Rucinsky, Marcel Hossa, Michal Rozsival, Marek Malik and the late Karel Rachunek. God rest his soul. Joined by Brendan Shanahan, Ryan Callahan, Matt Cullen, Sean Avery, Fedor Tyutin and Dan Girardi, they nearly upset the Sabres in the second round. A Straka goal with over three minutes left in Game 5 at Buffalo had us jumping up and down in excitement. Could it be? Was Lundqvist about to steal the game and bring it back to MSG? Chris Drury erased that with his tying goal with 7.7 seconds left. Maxim Afinogenov won it in overtime and the Sabres held on for a 5-4 win in Game 6.
Eventually, Renney’s magic wore off and John Tortorella replaced him starting a different era. Built more around the defense with Marc Staal teamed with Girardi and McDonagh part of it along with Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky, the Rangers had the East’s best record in ’11-12. They did it behind Lundqvist, who won 39 games with a 1.97 GAA, .929 save percentage and eight shutouts to capture the Vezina. He carried them in two tough rounds past the Senators and Capitals with both going the distance. Brad Richards was the emotional leader along with star Marian Gaborik. Both scored dramatic goals against the Caps to help them advance to a Conference Final against the Devils. Lundqvist lost to rival Martin Brodeur in six with Adam Henrique scoring in overtime to win the series.
Following a second round disappointment to a better Boston team, Tortorella was fired and replaced by Vigneault. He’s had a lot of success in his four years. Preaching a more up tempo system emphasizing speed, skating and puck possession, he’s led them to a Stanley Cup Final and within a period of consecutive trips. The gut wrenching 2-0 shutout home defeat in Game 7 of the 2015 Conference Final to the Lightning still stings. They had home ice for the entire playoffs. It might’ve been their best shot to deliver the franchise’s fifth Cup. Instead, we’re left wondering what might’ve been.
During his current slump, Lundqvist has said all the right things. Raanta is playing well. So, Vigneault is riding the hot hand. Hard to go against his decision to start him again against Chicago after he shut them out with a spectacular 26-save performance. The Hawks do get back Jonathan Toews. So, they should be even tougher to defend tonight. It’ll be interesting to see what Raanta comes up with along with his teammates, who have played better in front of him.
Part of that is having a different mentality. Many pundits have argued that it isn’t fair to Lundqvist, who has went onto become the franchise leader in wins and shutouts. He’s done everything and has built a Hall of Fame resume. However, he is still without a Cup. That is the only thing missing. Signed through 2020 with a hefty $8.5 million cap hit that has hurt the Rangers salary structure, he’ll be 38 when the contract ends. As he gets older, time is running out.
This year’s roster is better than last year thanks to key Gorton additions featuring surprising defenseman Nick Holden along with injured center Mika Zibanejad, leading goalscorer Michael Grabner, power play specialist Brandon Pirri, plus rookies Jimmy Vesey, Pavel Buchnevich and Brady Skjei. Despite having key players out including Zibanejad another month, Buchnevich for at least two more weeks, Rick Nash until probably Thursday and Matt Puempel (concussion), they continue to win.
It speaks to their improved depth. With improvements from Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller, the ’16-17 Rangers are a better team. Staal has bounced back after a longer summer to get healthy. So has easy target Girardi, who hasn’t been as bad as the Corsi contingent would have you believe. Kevin Klein has been the most inconsistent defenseman. But he’s steadied the last couple since possession power play guy Adam Clendening played for him in a loss to the Islanders. McDonagh also looks better. He doesn’t look as worn out and is having a very good year while carrying the load.
The only thing missing is better consistency from Lundqvist. The franchise goalie who has always been able to get through it. He’s not perfect. No one is. Sure. He’s seen more shots and chances against than Raanta during this recent stretch. But it doesn’t fully explain some of the goals he’s let in at inopportune times. Sometimes, you need your goalie to make the big save. Lundqvist is the Rangers’ best player.
The hope is the time off (now six days) will benefit him over the long haul. Vigneault promised to keep Lundqvist’s starts under 60. So, there’s nothing wrong with sticking with Raanta. Lundqvist is working on his game with Benoit Allaire. It’s all about reading and reaction. He’s been caught off balance more frequently. When he’s right, Lundqvist remains patient and doesn’t take himself out of the play as he did on Andrew Ladd’s crusher last week. He also doesn’t give up sharp angle shots short side or unscreened shots from way out when he’s right.
There are no excuses. Lundqvist doesn’t make any. He expects more of himself and knows he must be better. In many ways, he’s a perfectionist. Tonight is Game 31 of 82. That leaves another 50 left to play. Plenty of time for the Rangers’ best player to get back on track. He’s still the man. That fact won’t change when he returns.