It’s rare that you point the finger at a player who’s gone above and beyond the call of duty. Henrik Lundqvist has certainly done that for this franchise. For over a decade, he has been the backbone of a team that’s missed the playoffs only once since his rookie season in ’05-06. The franchise leader in wins (392), shutouts (60) and games played (714) as a goalie hasn’t been himself in ’16-17.
One could argue that it isn’t entirely his fault. Lundqvist doesn’t have the All-Star defense he once had. Age is showing on the back end in vets Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein. However, it doesn’t fully explain the up and down play of younger captain Ryan McDonagh, who after a very good start continues to be inconsistent. It’s not easy either when a blood and guts warrior such as Marc Staal goes down to a concussion. However, not everything can be pinned on a D which also has featured bright spot Nick Holden along with emerging rookie Brady Skjei with Adam Clendening filling in nicely for the injured Staal.
Sometimes, you need your goalie to make a key save. More often than not, the 34-year old Lundqvist has bailed out his teammates throughout his career which has included a Vezina along with the franchise’s only two comebacks from 3-1 down, plus a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. Without number 30 in net, it never happens.
This isn’t an indictment on the Rangers’ best player. But rather a disappointment in his substandard play. Entering the season, Lundqvist had a career .920 save percentage. Coming into tonight’s match against a much improved Maple Leafs, it was at .912 with a 2.55 goals-against-average. He’s already been benched once by coach Alain Vigneault, who rode hot hand Antti Raanta in December by giving him four straight starts. He earned it with three consecutive wins including back-to-back shutouts with only three goals allowed.
Some are calling for Raanta to replace Lundqvist again on a temporary basis. He could be in for tomorrow night’s match at Montreal. The House of Horrors. A place Lundqvist has struggled before. But the notion that they should go to Raanta remains problematic. What if he plays well and makes the decision tough? Then what. You risk losing your franchise goalie who’s given everything and is paid $8.5 million thru 2021.
Tonight was not encouraging if you’re a fan of the Blueshirts. On a night they honored Steven McDonald with an emotional tribute during the opening faceoff and then an tear jerking video tribute during a stoppage which saw Patricia Ann and son Conor share an embrace, the Rangers laid a stinker in a listless 4-2 loss at MSG.
Sadly, it started with the guy who patrols the net. While the Leafs are capable of putting anyone on their heels with their dynamic team speed and skill led by brilliant rookies Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, there was no explanation for Lundqvist’s play. At times, he made some big saves. At others, he gave up bad goals at inopportune times. The first was when William Nylander was able to catch Lundqvist off balance to give Toronto a 1-0 lead at 4:49.
The Leafs applied a lot of pressure prior to the goal. Both McDonagh and Skjei struggled to get the puck out. Eventually, Nazem Kadri found Nylander at the right face off circle where he fooled Lundqvist for his ninth of the season.
It wasn’t that the Rangers lacked for chances in a fast paced first period that favored the Leafs. They had just as many shots (11) but were unable to solve Frederik Andersen, who outplayed Lundqvist making 34 saves. There’s been too many nights where we have paid homage to the opposite goalie against our established one. That in itself is alarming.
Special teams also played a role in the two-goal defeat. The Rangers were abysmal going 0-for-6 on the power play while allowing a pair of Leafs’ power play goals in four chances. The latter of which came in only 12 seconds after Klein went to the penalty box for a slash that allowed household name Connor Carrick to score the crushing fourth goal at 13:20 of the third to ice it.
The Leafs are a very skilled team that can make you look silly. The Rangers penalty kill struggled keeping up. With Brandon Pirri off for a needless hook, Marner was able to find enough room and space to thread the needle across to James van Riemsdyk, who beat Lundqvist five-hole for a 2-0 lead at 17:28 of the first. It was another questionable one from a bread and butter player with character. He would be the first to tell you he should’ve had it.
Chris Kreider scored a highlight reel goal when he was able to beat Andersen from his knees on a second attempt with a backhand giving him nine goals in his last 10. Number 17 on the year cut it to 2-1 halfway through the contest. McDonagh and Mats Zuccarello set it up. Speaking of Zuccarello, he was everywhere firing a season best nine shots on net. But on a night he attempted 13 shots, he didn’t have any puck luck. He did pick up an assist and was one of the few consistent Ranger skaters. He’s due for a breakout.
If there was a back breaking goal, it belonged to Leafs rookie Connor Brown. After the Blueshirts failed on a power play, a transition rush started by Jake Gardiner allowed Matthews to feed Brown inside the Rangers blue line. His harmless shot took a bad bounce deflecting off McDonagh in front past Lundqvist for a 3-1 Toronto lead with 5:33 left in the second. This was more of the fluke variety. But had that ‘how did that go in’ look.
The Rangers had enough looks. The Leafs gave them opportunities by taking ill advised penalties. But they weren’t willing to cash in. They fired blanks. Or more to the point, shots wide or into Andersen. Hell. Gardiner got away with three minor penalties. The Rangers didn’t take advantage.
Following a big Lundqvist glove save point blank, the Leafs were only too happy to make Klein pay for his slashing minor. All it took was a dozen seconds with Marner given too much time to set up Tyler Bozak for a one-timer that Lundqvist kicked out right to Carrick, who deposited it for a 4-1 cushion with 6:40 remaining in regulation.
By the time J.T. Miller buried his 13th off a nice rush and set up from talented returning Russian rookie Pavel Buchnevich, it was too late. It came with 1:25 left. At least Vigneault finally got Miller out there. God forbid he get more power play minutes. Why would one of our best shooters deserve more than 25 seconds of power play time over a bunch of passers? A terrible coaching decision by a stubborn guy who while good, is still set in his ways. At least Buchnevich got 4:04 on the man-advantage.
This was a disappointing result on a special night. It didn’t tarnish what it meant. Paying homage to probably the biggest Ranger fan who happened to be one of NYPD’s finest makes it extra special. It would’ve been nice if they didn’t look so disjointed. If they had been sharper and wanted it more than the Leafs. It started with Lundqvist. He wasn’t good enough. No more excuses.