The time is now for Lundqvist

Henrik Lundqvist, Dan Boyle

Henrik Lundqvist has never let down the Rangers since assuming the mantle as a 23-year old rookie. Now is the time for him to prove he still has it with Antti Raanta out. AP Photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack/Getty Images

Ever since he entered the NHL as a bright eyed 23-year old who carried Frolunda HC to a championship back home in Sweden, Henrik Lundqvist has been a brilliant goalie for the Rangers. The former 2000 seventh round pick taken number 205 has been the backbone of the franchise. In helping lead a once struggling Original Six outfit out of irrelevancy to 10 of 11 postseasons, the Swedish King made Broadway a big hit.

No longer was MSG an eyesore for the Garden Faithful. But rather a spotlight for its biggest star to shine under the bright lights. Lundqvist has been a model of consistency winning at least 30-or-more games in 10 of 11 seasons. The only year he didn’t was the shortened season of ’12-13 when he won 24 while posting a 2.05 goals-against-average and .926 save percentage with three shutouts in 43 games.

That was the last year under former coach John Tortorella, who emphasized defense first. His volatile personality finally wore out with Lundqvist non-committal to re-signing with the team. He also had some criticism after the team was bounced out of the second round by the Bruins following an appearance in the Conference Finals during Lundqvist’s Vezina season of ’11-12. A year which saw the team gain the East’s top seed and have the franchise netminder achieve career bests in wins (39), GAA (1.97) and save percentage (.929) in 62 contests. He carried that team past Ottawa and Washington before getting outplayed by old rival Martin Brodeur in a six-game series loss to the Devils.

In many ways, that ’11-12 roster overachieved. They weren’t expected to go from a five-game first round exit to the East’s best record and two hard fought seven-game series with their goalie prevailing to help them reach the team’s first Conference Final since ’97 when number 11 and 99 starred along with number 2, 9 and 35 in a classic era of Rangers hockey. As it turned out, they weren’t ready to win. So, after a tumultuous year with Tortorella, whose truthful answer about why he didn’t use Carl Hagelin on the power play caused irreparable damage, then President and GM Glen Sather made a coaching change.

Out was Tortorella and in came Alain Vigneault. Another successful NHL coach who had guided the Canucks to the edge of a Stanley Cup in ’10-11 before losing in awful fashion to the Bruins 4-0 in their own building in Game 7. They won the President’s Trophy with 117 points led by a high scoring offense featuring the Sedin Twins and Ryan Kesler. Roberto Luongo was the star goalie with future Devils starter¬†Cory Schneider the very capable backup. Despite finally edging the Blackhawks in seven games after blowing a 3-0 series lead and besting the Predators and Sharks in easier fashion, Vancouver came up just short of delivering the franchise’s first Cup. They blew series leads of 2-0 and 3-2 to the Bruins.

Following consecutive first round disappointments, Vigneault was dismissed. With both coaches outed, they actually traded places. Vigneault was hired by the Rangers receiving a five-year $10 million contract. Tortorella took the Vancouver job. Ultimately, Vigneault was a lot more successful than Tortorella, who was a bad fit for the Canucks. He lost his job following one season before eventually landing on his feet last year with the now totally rebuild Blue Jackets.

Vigneault took over in ’13-14 for the Rangers. Bringing a more offensive minded approach emphasizing speed, skill and transition, it worked. After defeating the Flyers in seven games thanks to unsung hero Dan Carcillo and the goaltending of Lundqvist, they faced off against the Penguins. A team they’d never beaten in the postseason. When they had two dismal performances at MSG to fall behind 3-1, it looked over.

After learning of emotional leader Martin St. Louis’ Mom France’s death to a heart attack, they went into Pittsburgh and won convincingly. St. Louis played in both Games 5 and 6 scoring the first goal in a Mother’s Day win to even the series. As all this was going on, Lundqvist shut the door allowing just three goals on the final 102 shots- including a gut wrenching 2-1 win in Game 7 with brilliant goalie making Brad Richards’ power play goal in the second period from St. Louis stand up. Without Lundqvist’s performance, the Rangers don’t come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a series for the first time in franchise history. They also don’t beat the Pens again. I remember how emotional I was when they won. It meant everything.

Buoyed by Carey Price’s injury in Game 1 on an accidental collision with Chris Kreider, who was pushed from behind by Alexei Emelin unless you talk to Montreal fans, the Rangers still had to go six to earn their first Stanley Cup trip in 20 years. The only goal came from Dominic Moore on a great set up from Brian Boyle behind the net late in the second. Without a remarkable save from Lundqvist that I still don’t know how he stopped, who knows if they win what still ranks as the best game I’ve ever been to. He only made 18 saves for the shutout but that one save with the game still scoreless before Moore’s series clincher will forever be remembered. Here it is in all its glory called by Doc Emrick:

That team made the Stanley Cup Final due to Lundqvist, who carried them as far as he possibly could. His play against the Pens turned the second round around. Saves like the ridiculous blocker save above were common. Ultimately, they fell short of winning the Cup by falling to the Kings in as close a five-game series as possible. Three sudden death losses all at Staples Center still sting. So too were the blown leads in the third period where Vigneault chose to sit back. Part of it was due to the Kings, whose size and ferocious forecheck turned third periods into nightmares for Blueshirt fans. So lopsided were they that it defied logic. I wish I didn’t have to see Alec Martinez, who continues to score big goals for the Kings to this day.

When I think of Lundqvist’s reaction with him being down and in tears, it still is the saddest sight I’ve ever seen. This guy has meant so much for the Rangers. He has always faced the music win or lose. When they lost in a crushing Game 7 at home to the Lightning in a Conference Final the following year, he was there at his locker responding to reporters’ questions. That loss to Tampa was heartbreaking. Even after we learned of all the injuries key defensemen Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Kevin Klein played through, it still hurt knowing the team scored zero goals in the final six home periods in Game 5 and 7. If you don’t score, how can you win? Yet they crushed Tampa in Game 6 on the road as predicted. Let’s just say it was a very weird series with a cruel ending.

In ’15-16, I predicted Lundqvist to win the Vezina. I figured he’d be super motivated. His start was unreal. Despite a battered D with still a not fully recovered Girardi and Staal struggling mightily, Lundqvist was as good as he’s ever been leading the team to a stunning start. But it all broke down in late December. They were never the same. With more and more breakdowns, Lundqvist had to do too much. Somehow, he still wound up with a .920 save percentage, 35 victories, seven shutouts and a 2.48 GAA. But there were more instances where he was pulled for backup Antti Raanta. A sad trend that continued in a lopsided five-game series defeat to the Pens, who would win the Cup.

Unfortunately, this wonderful player who always exudes class and personifies what it means to be a professional athlete win or lose couldn’t bail out a flawed team. It was tough to watch. Seeing him get pulled in the final two games was not how anyone pictured it. But the writing had been on the wall. With Vigneault stubbornly playing Girardi too much despite a bad knee and Staal struggling along with Klein, who hasn’t been the same since a fractured thumb, the defense remains an issue.

Even with rookie Brady Skjei and ’16-17 revelation Nick Holden helping aid the blue line with improved speed from the left side, the Rangers defensively aren’t the same. Despite darts being tossed at Girardi by redundant bloggers who would probably blame him for ISIS and other worldwide issues, he hasn’t been the worst defenseman. That’s been Klein, who is now painful to watch. He gets beat routinely and turns pucks over. It’s become sad to watch him because he was so good his first two years after being acquired from Nashville for Michael Del Zotto. A trade that actually turned into one of Sather’s best.

Making matters worse, Staal has been out with post-concussion symptoms. He hasn’t played since Jan. 3. With the alternate captain bouncing back with a stronger year due to being healthier, it’s made the Rangers defense an eyesore. There is no timetable for his return. Staal must go through concussion protocol. At last check, he is skating. But who knows when he’ll be cleared for full contact. Unlike the improved forward depth which current general manager Jeff Gorton upgraded, the D remains paper thin. Especially when you subtract Staal.

What’s transpired is more games where Lundqvist hasn’t been up to par. He’s not making the key stops we’re so used to seeing. For over a decade, number 30 spoiled us. The franchise leader in wins (392) and shutouts (60) is down to a career worst 2.72 GAA and .907 save percentage. He’s still won 18 of 31 games due in large part to an improved offense. The Rangers rank first in offense just ahead of Pittsburgh averaging 3.41 goals-per-game. With contributions from Gorton steal Michael Grabner (19 goals), Chris Kreider (17 goals), Rick Nash (14 goals),¬†Kevin Hayes (33 points), Derek Stepan (33 points), J.T. Miller and Mats Zuccarello (32 points each), they are well balanced.

The good news is Pavel Buchnevich is already back and Mika Zibanejad returns for tomorrow’s home match against the Stars after missing two months with a broken leg. Offensively, the Rangers should see continued improvement. Especially with Zibanejad centering Buchnevich and Nash while Stepan remains with Kreider and Zuccarello. That leaves Hayes with Miller and Grabner. A very good third line with solid chemistry. The fourth line for tomorrow will be Brandon Pirri centering rookie Jimmy Vesey and Jesper Fast. Pirri has scored five of his seven goals on the power play. It’s the only reason he stays in the lineup. Oscar Lindberg is a better fit for the fourth line.

Offense isn’t a problem. It’s about the goalie and the defense with the latter having been covered extensively. This defense isn’t gonna prevent quality scoring chances. Especially with Skjei hitting a rookie wall, Girardi up and down and Klein in a funk. Even emotional leader Ryan McDonagh is having trouble. His breakdown which led to Max Pacioretty’s breakaway goal in an awful 5-4 loss to the Canadiens at the House of Horrors was part of a total team breakdown in which the Rangers allowed three straight Montreal goals in 62 seconds.

Lundqvist couldn’t stop the bleeding. Following Pacioretty’s 20th, here came a swarm of Habs undefended as they attacked Lundqvist’s net. Eventually, Paul Byron backhanded a loose puck off Adam Clendening in only 26 seconds later to turn a 3-2 Rangers lead into a 5-3 deficit. A total disaster. Had Lundqvist seen Emelin’s shot from 60 feet which tied the score, maybe they don’t have a meltdown.

In truth, he wasn’t expected to play. Vigneault gave Raanta the start following a very disappointing home loss to the Maple Leafs on an emotional Friday night when the team paid tribute to Steven McDonald. Toronto has improved and their team speed and skill caused problems. But Lundqvist also gave up at least two questionable goals where his positioning was off. When he’s right, he is more aggressive and closes down bad angles.

A visibly shaken Lundqvist following the Montreal misery in which he was forced into action due to a lower body injury to Raanta, showed the 34-year old at a loss for words. He gave up all five goals on 22 shots in the final two periods. How tough was it to watch his post game? He even showed frustration with MSG reporter John Giannone, who asked if he saw Emelin’s shot. He fumed:

“Did it look like I saw it?”

It was not Giannone’s fault. He only asks what the MSG production crew tells him to. Sometimes, the obvious questions can make him look bad. Giannone is a pro. It was not the most comfortable situation for him or Lundqvist, whose confidence is shaken. Following a four-game stretch where Raanta played last month, he returned to form and looked to be back. A 27-save shutout of the Stars followed by 31 saves in a shootout win over Nashville and 29 saves in another shootout win over the Devils seemed to indicate that Lundqvist was seeing the puck better. In the three, he permitted three goals on 90 shots in 190 minutes.

But in a perplexing move, Vigneault went back to Raanta at the Pens. Rather than give a resurgent Lundqvist a fourth straight start, he decided to start Raanta who had won at Pittsburgh in an earlier match-up. He was no match as were the team which played dreadful hockey in a 7-2 blowout loss. The reason I disagreed with the decision was because Lundqvist was playing well and hadn’t won at Pittsburgh in a while. It would’ve been a good opportunity to see if he could stay hot and beat a team that’s given him problems recently.

The Rangers also had two days off before a final home game against the Wild. Vigneault went back to Lundqvist, who wasn’t himself giving up four goals on 13 shots before Raanta replaced him in an embarrassing 7-4 loss to head into the Christmas break. Since then, he’s allowed four goals-or-more in five of his last seven starts counting that game. When Vigneault went back to him following a no show against Buffalo, he was stellar with 30 saves in a back-to-back 5-2 win at the Flyers. He also showed great mental fortitude in a come from behind 5-4 win at Columbus by not allowing anything following an early Blue Jackets goal that put the Rangers in a 4-1 hole before they rallied.

Lundqvist is the type of goalie you have to ride. He prefers a heavy workload. When Vigneault decided to go back to Raanta at Montreal following a 4-2 home defeat to Toronto, it was a mistake. By continuing to do this, it’s not allowing Lundqvist to find a rhythm. He’s been so dependable for so long, he deserves the right to figure it out.

Maybe he isn’t the same goalie. However, he’s never given the Rangers any reason to panic before. He’s been through similar poor stretches with the one in Vignault’s first season forcing him to the bench for three straight while Cam Talbot started. Lundqvist came back and recovered.

Now with Raanta out and the Rangers having five games in the next nine days, this is Lundqvist’s chance to regain his form. There’s no time like the present for him to prove he is still the man. There can’t be any doubt. It’s time to see if he still has it.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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2 Responses to The time is now for Lundqvist

  1. hasan4978 says:

    I’m going to lose my fantasy league (probably finish second AGAIN) because both Lundqvist and Jake Allen suck this year. Not that my real life goalie’s much better these days.


    • Derek Felix says:

      Don’t get me started on Hank. Since I acquired him, he’s given up 16 goals in 7 periods. And I got Crawford too and he allows 4 tonight to the hapless Avs. My team has plunged. The defense and AV’s risk taking offensive system is hurting Lundqvist badly. He critiqued it in the post game. That to me signals the beginning of the end for Vigneault, unless he is willing to roll it back to protect the D.


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