After the Rangers fell short in another low-scoring affair Friday afternoon in Boston, the truth – the hard truth – is this: the irreproachable Henrik Lundqvist has to be better.
Are you crazy??
Hold on, now. Simmer down. Take a deep breath.
No Ranger fan likes to point the finger at The King. I get that. He has served the people so well for so long, it feels disloyal to fault him. It feels like betrayal to admit when he’s outplayed.
And here’s the thing: by building him up for the past eight years, by praising him and endorsing him and absolving him of blame, the fans have made it very hard for themselves to acknowledge his struggles. We want him to meet this ideal in our minds, and so when he doesn’t, we look the other way.
Must have been the defense tonight.
But isn’t it time to snap out of it? Lundqvist, any way you cut it, has been decidedly average this season, and his team has followed suit. The Rangers, through 26 games, have 13 wins and 13 losses, and are drumming to their leader’s beat: a good game today, a bad game tomorrow.
Truth be told, such inconsistency in net wasn’t supposed to matter this year. Because with a new offensive-minded coach behind the bench, the Rangers were going to score more goals and rely less on Lundqvist. When he played beneath himself – as all goalies occasionally do – the offense was going to pick him up.
It was a tidy little plan. And Alain Vigneault, to his credit, has done his part, raising his team inside a system that encourages offense everywhere on the ice. To date, the Rangers rank second in the East in puck possession and third in shots/game.
But Vigneault can’t put the pucks in the net himself. It’s up to the players to convert chances into goals, and if we’re in the business of hard truths, here’s another one: Rick Nash is the only bona fide goal-scorer on this team.
So despite the changes Vigneault has made, despite the style of play he has implemented at MSG, the Rangers remain one of the most offensively-starved teams in the NHL. With 2.12 goals/game, they rank 28th in the league. Perhaps AV just doesn’t have the horses for the type of race he wants to run. (That’s for another time, though.)
What does this all mean for Lundqvist? Well, he’s not allowed any off-nights. For in a season where it finally looked like he might be able to catch his breath, the Rangers have needed him more than ever. (Even in the most austere Tom Renney years, the team was never this short on goals.) And Lundqvist, for the first time in his career, looks like he could use a breather.
It’s not as if he’s played poorly, at least compared to the rest of the league. His .918 SV% and 2.51 GAA rank 21st and 23rd in the league, respectively, which puts him right in the middle of the goaltending pack.
But the Rangers aren’t used to seeing Lundqvist in the middle of the pack. They’re used to seeing him right there at the front, separating himself from the field as the season presses on, proving with each game why he’s one of the best in the biz.
And he still is one of the best in the biz. But it’s his track record, not his play right now, that renders this true. For if this year is our only benchmark, Lundqvist is just another goalie.
It’s not his reflexes. It’s not his reactions. And no, it’s not the downsized pads, which many have pointed to in accounting for Lundqvist’s rocky start. (This adjustment, mandated in the offseason by the NHL, was meant to target the five-hole, and Lundqvist hasn’t been victimized between the legs any more than usual.)
More than anything else, it seems to be his focus. Lundqvist has let in an unusually high number of “soft goals” this season, and one has to wonder if he’s simply mentally drained. The Swedish netminder is known for meticulous preparation, to a near painstaking degree, and eight straight years of that takes its toll on the mind.
He still makes your jaw drop. He still, quite routinely, makes stops like the one he made Saturday against Milan Lucic, when he denied the big winger on a breakaway with a split-legged save. But he also makes you scratch your head. He makes you wonder how that one slipped past him, like the game-winner from Zdeno Chara later on in the afternoon.
Chara’s got a booming slap shot, no doubt about it. But Lundqvist had a clear lane to the shooter, who was just inside the blue line, and it’s a save he should make. He just didn’t track the puck correctly, didn’t put himself in a position to make the save, a sign of mental fatigue more than physical wear.
When the mechanics break down, it’s time for a rest.
And Lundqvist will get that on Sunday, when Cam Talbot starts between the pipes against Vancouver. If Talbot, who has played brilliantly so far for the Rangers, turns in another strong performance, a goalie controversy may start to simmer in New York. And as strongly as that reflects on Talbot, that’s not what Ranger fans – or Lundqvist – want to hear.
For if Lundqvist’s game were on, there wouldn’t be any murmurs. And one has to wonder now if Talbot’s honest push into Hank’s territory has The King rattled. Ever since bursting onto the scene as a rookie in the 2005/06 season, Lundqvist has owned the crease for the Blueshirts, the various backups only serving to remind us just how good Lundqvist was.
Now, for the first time in his NHL career, Lundqvist is being challenged. Talbot has proven himself more than capable since arriving from Hartford in late October (5-1/.944 SV%/1.41 GAA), and his camp is growing with each win. The same fans that have long cried “Hen-Reek!! Hen-Reek!!” are now calling for Talbot to take over.
The best way for Lundqvist to handle this? Start playing like he did last year, two years ago, and every year before that. There’s no goalie controversy if Lundqvist is Lundqvist.
But he’ll have to ratchet things up soon. Because the Rangers, despite their identity overhaul, are the same old low-scoring team we’ve watched for the past six seasons. And with Talbot waiting in the wings, they can’t afford to sit around and wait for Hank to find his form.
It shouldn’t be this way. Rangers fans shouldn’t have to ask Lundqvist for more – he’s given so much already. And he shouldn’t be put on the spot, and told forebodingly to figure things out. It seems ungrateful.
But the fact of the matter is the Rangers need wins. And right now, wins are coming in that 3-2 and 2-1 type of way that demands great goaltending. It wasn’t supposed to be another grind-it-out season, but right now it’s what they’ve got.
The reason most of those seasons bled into the playoffs is because Lundqvist willed it so. Now, with another year of tightfisted hockey upon them, the Rangers look toward Hank again. If they’re lucky, he’ll roll his eyes, ask Pyatt when he last scored, and say, “Okay, okay. I got this.”