The Rangers will be without Henrik Lundqvist when they visit Detroit tomorrow night. The franchise netminder injured himself in a recent 5-2 road win at Florida this past Tuesday. A game in which he was super making 43 saves to reach 30 wins for the 11th time in 12 seasons passing Grant Fuhr for number 10 on the all-time wins list with 404.
Apparently, Lundqvist suffered a hip strain and will be sidelined two to three weeks. So, the 35-year old will sit and watch from the press box while dependable backup Antti Raanta takes over in net. The 27-year old Finnish goalie has been stellar. In his second season on Broadway, he’s 13-6-0 with a 2.33 goals-against-average, .922 save percentage with a team-leading three shutouts.
So, losing Lundqvist for a stretch in March isn’t the end of the world. He can rehab while Raanta assumes the mantle. With 14 games remaining, the Rangers still have five sets of back-to-backs including four the rest of the month starting with Detroit and Tampa 3/12-13 and ending with Anaheim and San Jose 3/25-26 as part of a tough three games in four days stretch in California.
That means Hartford recall Magnus Hellberg is gonna have to start a game or two. The team can’t just ride Raanta with so many games over such a short span. Acquired from Nashville on July 1, 2015 in exchange for a 2017 sixth round pick, the 25-year old has never started an NHL game. He’s gotten in three with the Predators and Rangers. So, the question for coach Alain Vigneault is will he trust Hellberg enough to start him and rest Raanta during one of the back-to-backs. He’ll need to.
The only concern for Lundqvist is how quickly he recovers from the hip injury. He was playing better challenging shooters and had carried the team when they stopped scoring. You worry about rust with a veteran goalie who likes work. When April rolls around, the Blueshirts will have four games left between 4/2-9 including the final back-to-back against Ottawa and Pittsburgh to conclude the regular season.
The last time he had an injury this late was during ’14-15 when he missed two months due to a sprained blood vessel in his neck that actually was life threatening. It’s hard to believe he played the next game which coincidentally was a win over Florida before the serious nature of the injury was discovered. That year, the team had Cam Talbot as a great replacement who carried them down the stretch to a President’s Trophy.
Lundqvist was able to successfully return going 5-2-0 down the stretch. He got the team past the Flyers and Capitals in seven with a closely contested Eastern Conference Semifinal one of the franchise’s most memorable series. For a second straight year, Lundqvist helped the Rangers rally from a 3-1 series deficit in the second round stunning the Caps in Game 5 on Chris Kreider’s tying goal and Ryan McDonagh’s game-winner. Both set up by Derek Stepan. After hanging on in Game 6, it was Stepan’s overtime winner that sent the Rangers to a second straight Conference Final.
Without Lundqvist, the comebacks against the Pens and Caps in consecutive years don’t happen. Unfortunately, it was more of a cruel ending in 2015 with the team getting shutout 2-0 in Game 7 at MSG by the Lightning. A perplexing series where the road team won five of the seven games.
So, what’s in store this time? It’s hard to say. This team isn’t going to be the favorite. The favorites are the Pens and Caps. Both have loaded rosters with better star talent, scoring, team defense and arguably better goaltending. Hard to admit. But until Braden Holtby proves himself along with playoff choker Alexander Ovechkin, who knows about Washington. They haven’t exactly lit the world on fire since overpaying for Kevin Shattenkirk. They’re 3-2-0 since getting him having lost two straight.
The Pens and Blue Jackets are only three behind the Caps for first. Each have 16 games remaining. Washington holds the first tiebreaker with 43 ROW compared to 41 ROW for Columbus and 39 for Pittsburgh. Both are four up on the idle Blueshirts, who are in comfortable position in the first wildcard with 88 points. Thirteen more than the Islanders and 14 better than the Maple Leafs. Toronto is battling the Islanders for the final wildcard with the Lightning lurking behind while the Flyers are still alive but need to outpoint them due to only 25 ROW. A bad 2-1 loss to Boston didn’t help losing on a last second goal from Drew Stafford.
As long as the Rangers take care of business, they should be fine. It continues to look like they’ll wind up with the first wildcard and draw either the Canadiens or Senators. That’s only a two point difference with Ottawa holding two games in hand.
At this point, I don’t care who they draw. Whoever it is, it won’t be easy. Obviously, avoiding the 2/3 match-up in the Metro is probably better because it means either Pittsburgh or Columbus. But they didn’t beat Montreal once and split with Ottawa with one game left. So, there is no guarantee.
A healthy Lundqvist is the key. A couple of weeks off and some game action to sharpen up isn’t necessarily bad. He is the workhorse once the postseason starts. I’m not opposed to Raanta replacing him if he’s off and it comes down to that. But most likely, it’s Lundqvist’s show again. He’s proven capable of taking this team deep getting them to three Final Four appearances.
The more pressing concern is the defense and Vigneault’s use of Tanner Glass, who played over Pavel Buchnevich in the final minute of a frustrating 4-3 loss at Carolina. You have to wonder why Brady Skjei got less ice-time than Marc Staal. Skjei should be getting over 20 minutes at this point proving he’s fully capable of a top four role. Instead, Vigneault continues to lean on his vets including Staal, who can use a blow once Dan Girardi returns. Nick Holden gets more ice-time and key acquisition Brendan Smith has been solid.
Nobody can predict how this season will turn out. It’s already better than it was expected to be. But the scoring has been inconsistent lately. The need for Stepan to end his scoring drought is great along with J.T. Miller getting out of his funk. Kevin Hayes scored in the win over Florida but needs to get back to the form we saw through January. Mika Zibanejad has shown signs netting his first two power play goals at Carolina. Rick Nash seems to get chances every night he plays. But isn’t burying them.
Chris Kreider is up to 26 goals. He needs four for his first 30-goal season. He’s taken the punishment and been more consistent. But with so few finishers, are the Rangers good enough to make a run? Getting Michael Grabner back can only help. The chemistry he had with Hayes and Miller was instrumental. Even though he hadn’t finished prior to his injury, his 26 markers exceeded expectations. When he and Jesper Fast return, the Rangers become much tougher up front. As long as Vigneault understands Glass must come out along with ineffective Brandon Pirri.
A fourth line of Oscar Lindberg, Jimmy Vesey and Fast is capable of contributing offensively without losing much defensively. For the first time since Brian Boyle left for Tampa, the Rangers are four lines deep. It will all depend on Lundqvist and a team defense which leans heavily on Ryan McDonagh, who hasn’t always been lights out.
Thankfully, Raanta will fill in the same way Talbot did. That will allow Lundqvist to take his time before being cleared to return. Never a bad thing with a goalie in their mid-30’s. He should be fresh. Maybe the injury is a blessing in disguise. We’ll find out.