Another start for Henrik Lundqvist Friday versus the Islanders, another chance for him to turn the page on this dour, young-but-not-that-young season. Another blank canvas, another clean slate, another opportunity to start anew. And in the end, the same old story.
Lundqvist, for the seventh time on this homestand, was very un-kingly Friday night at The Garden, allowing four goals on 19 shots and costing his team two points they very much deserved. The Rangers outplayed the Islanders from almost start to finish, but were undone by a goalie incapable of making the big save.
The Islanders had five – five! – scoring chances all night long, and scored five times. The final tally, obviously, was an empty-netter, but against Lundqvist the Isles offense hit .800, a percentage that fell short of perfection only because Michael Grabner rung one off the crossbar in the second period. Otherwise, when the Islanders had chances, they scored.
Cal Clutterbuck; his third of the year. Michael Grabner; his first in 31 games. Brain Strait; his first…ever. Of the four players who scored Friday night for the Islanders, Thomas Vanek was the only one who had any business being on the score sheet. But like a passive bouncer, Lundqvist held the door open for everyone else.
The goals he allowed, for the most part, weren’t ghastly. Strait’s power play marker – an undeflected, unobstructed one-timer from the point – certainly should have been stopped, but outside of that, Lundqvist was beaten on a penalty shot, a breakaway and a crease-area deflection. It’s hard to say – again, Srait goal excluded – that he made any serious mistakes.
But the blame isn’t being placed on Lundqvist for something he did wrong. It falls on him tonight, as it has every game on this homestand, for the things he couldn’t do better.
In the first period, the Rangers needed two big saves from Lundqvist – perhaps even one. Momentum was on their side, and with the game starting to reveal itself, they needed to keep it there. When Clutterbuck was (dubiously) awarded a penalty shot midway through the Rangers’ second power play, it was Lundqvist who needed to step up and keep the hill tilted in his team’s favor. But Clutterbuck slipped a shot underneath Hank’s arm and changed the course of the game.
The Rangers, to their credit, kept on coming. (If there’s one positive the team has shown recently, it’s a newfound resiliency.) They went back to work in the offensive end and earned another power play about seven minutes later. But the extra-man unit surrendered another breakaway, this time to Grabner, and looked sheepishly toward Lundqvist to bail them out. But Grabner, mired in an 11-week scoring drought, deked the once-undekeable Swede to the ice and tucked the puck inside the far post with the poise of a player who scored yesterday.
All of a sudden, in a game the Rangers had been dominating, the Islanders were ahead 2-0. Benoit Pouliot got one back for the Rangers later in the period, but the team deserved a better fate after 20 minutes than a 2-1 deficit. As they did after 40 minutes when the game was tied at three, and as they most certainly did after 60 minutes, when the game was lost.
Even the game-winning goal, a redirection in front by Vanek, was a save Lundqvist could have made. The puck hit him before crossing the line, and as any good wide receiver will tell you about a pass that hits them in the hands, he should have had it. Especially after dropping the ball earlier in the game.
That’s the thing about minding the net. You’re free from reproach only when you make the saves that matter. Had Lundqvist made a big stop or two earlier in the game, the goal he allowed to Vanek would have been easier to swallow. Well you can’t stop ‘em all. But when the fourth puck squeezed through on the Islanders fifth scoring chance, Lundqvist just seemed so…ineffectual. Man, can he stop any of ‘em?
He wasn’t bad against the Islanders. He certainly wasn’t awful. But he was terribly far from great, which is about where he’s been for much of this season. He’s stopping the shots he should stop, and none of the shots he shouldn’t, and thus the Rangers are winning some of the games they should win and none of the games they shouldn’t. For the first time in his career, Lundqvist, the sure-handed thief, the flashy bandit, has mostly clean hands.
It’s extremely hard to explain. For one, Lundqvist has struggled since October, not just recently, so it’s a stretch to categorize this is as your average slump. There is something fundamentally amiss with Lundqvist’s game, for a .905 SV% and 2.77 GAA are numbers were simply not used to seeing from him this far into the season.
Some might point to the massive workload he has carried over the past eight seasons as cause for his tribulations in net this year, but it must be remembered that Lundqvist was a Vezina Trophy finalist just last year. His 2012-13 numbers – .926, 2.07 – were so good, and so comparable to his numbers in 2011-12, that people earnestly began wondering if Lundqvist was about to reach an entirely new level entering this year.
And all of a sudden he’s worn out? It can’t be that simple. If long-term fatigue were affecting Hank now, wouldn’t it have affected him last year, and maybe the year before that too? Deterioration is something that happens over time, not overnight, and Lundqvist’s tumble, like a flash storm, has come out of nowhere.
The Rangers have to hope a flash storm is all it is. But if the clouds don’t clear soon, you have to start wondering if there’s something else at play here. Is Lundqvist playing hurt? Is he injured and keeping it to himself? Having just signed a massive 7-year, $59 million extension, Lundqvist may feel the need to grit his teeth and hang in there. But if he’s hurting the team, he has to find the strength to admit it.
It’s an unthinkable proposition really: Lundqvist hurting the Rangers. All he’s done for the past eight years is carry the team on his broad-shouldered back, lifting them from Eastern Conference doormat to perennial contender. But this year, and especially of late, it’s Lundqvist who’s needed a hand. And with this offensively-starved team unable to return the favor, there are but two ways this season plays out.
Either Lundqvist picks up his game and his teammates in the process, or the Rangers go tumbling down with him.