by Paul West
Just when you thought it was safe to hope the New York Rangers would make it back to the Stanley Cup: starting goalie Henrik Lundqvist is out for three weeks with a neck injury. Here’s why this bit of news isn’t as terrible as it seems at first.
Rangers need to learn to win without Lundqvist
Of course, it would be a huge overstatement to suggest that the Rangers use Lundqvist as a crutch. Yes, there are days when Henrik was the only reason the blueshirts were still in a game; but that’s true of basically every team with an elite goalie. Under John Tortorella, the Rangers relied on Henrik to win far too many games in which they were offensively anemic and/or were mostly outplayed. But under Alain Vigneault, the Rangers became an elite team when they ceased to be the Henrik Lundqvist show. Again, Hank still keeps the Rangers in games and sometimes even wins them almost by himself. But going into today’s game against the Nashville Predators, the Rangers are fifth in the NHL in goals per game and third in goals against. For most of the season, they’ve hovered around the top ten in both power play and penalty kill percentages. The Rangers are now a balanced team that can win in a multiple of ways.
Lundqvist will get some rest
Top-line goalies like Lundqvist will never tell you they need a break. In fact, they basically never want a break. But the thing is: they still sometimes need breaks. Henrik Lundqvist has logged a lot of miles in his career, between being the Rangers’ ace for a decade and winning medals for the Swedish National team. If his current neck injury is something from which he emerges fully healed, then three weeks off will give him fresh legs and early-season energy just in time for the playoff push.
Cam Talbot is better than you might think
As I’ve noted before, the Rangers have a two-headed monster in goal when Lundqvist and Talbot are healthy. Just about every time he’s gotten a start, Cam Talbot has been a brick wall in net for the blueshirts. He’s cool under pressure, he takes up a ton of the net at 6’3″, and he’s been itching for more than spot-start duty. He’s saying the right things, and seems as he’s mentally prepared for the job. Of course, being a spot-start backup, even a good one, means he won’t have every-night stamina; the Rangers will still need to promote or sign someone to back him up. But Talbot might be the best backup goalie in the NHL, and the Rangers should be fine in his hands.
If this was the Tortorella-era Rangers, Lundqvist’s absence would spell trouble. But the Alain Vigneault Rangers are a balanced, explosive team that no longer relies on its goalie to stand on his head while they go on long scoring droughts. This year’s Rangers can score and defend, and they’re fantastic in transition. They have the league leader in goals scored in the resurgent Rick Nash, and captain Ryan McDonagh is one of the best defensemen in the league. The Rangers will definitely notice Henrik’s absence, but the wheels won’t come off while Cam has the job.