The New York Rangers are hot right now and it’s all thanks to a goaltender named Not Henrik Lundqvist.
You heard that right; Antti Raanta is on a tear and while it may seem awkward for ‘The King’ not to be sitting on the throne, this is not a bad thing for Broadway.
First off, New York is winning – and not in a “Semyon Varlamov masking Colorado’s deficiencies” kinda way. Raanta’s most recent victory was a 19-save shutout against New Jersey in which he had to make at least one crucial stop, but in the end wasn’t pushed hard by the Devils. So that’s good: anytime you don’t have to rely on your netminder, you’re playing solid hockey.
But Raanta has been playing at a high level pretty much all season, hence the potential goalie controversy brewing in New York. Lundqvist is providing all the right sound bites, though we know he would rather be the one grabbing the goose-eggs. And that’s great; you want a competitive netminder and we know Lundqvist has that fire. When he does get back into the crease, he’ll be more motivated than ever to turn in a vintage ‘Hank’ performance.
Long-term, this could really work to the Rangers’ advantage. Lundqvist has been a sharp playoff performer for years and was the only reason New York won a game in the 2014 Stanley Cup final. Every goalie has an expiration date; we just don’t know when it will be. Martin Brodeur was excellent until he was 40, while Roberto Luongo is 37 and still rocking. They are the exceptions, however. And as a former NHL netminder once told me, as soon as a goalie starts to falter, the end usually comes pretty fast.
So maybe Lundqvist, 34, has five more years of elite hockey left in him. Maybe he has one. For a guy used to playing upwards of 65 games a season, it’s not the worst idea that his back-up takes on a bit more action for him this year. Lundqvist is still your guy when the post-season rolls around, but now he’s a little more rested than usual. He also has someone pushing him in Raanta, while coach Alain Vigneault has a safety blanket should things go pear-shaped early. Remember; Cam Ward was not Carolina’s starter when the Hurricanes began their run to the 2006 Cup championship.
Now, the downside to all this is the possibility that eventually Raanta runs cold and Lundqvist doesn’t heat back up. It’s a risk you take, albeit a small one. Even if both netminders are playing Dallas-esque, you still have an incredibly deep offensive squad that boasts eight forwards with at least 17 points each through 30 games. That’s the sort of barrage that becomes very difficult to defend against in the post-season.
And really, do we expect goaltending to let the Rangers down in the playoffs? It hasn’t happened very often during the Lundqvist era. Considering how his crease dominance is being questioned right now, he’ll probably be pretty focused come springtime. Which is great news for the Blueshirt faithful and bad news for the rest of the East.