by Paul West
When Henrik Lundqvist was sidelined several weeks ago with a somewhat frightening vascular injury, widespread panic ensued among Rangers fans. There was talk of signing another goaltender to start in Hank’s absence, and some of the suggestions were clearly desperate. A relative minority of analysts and observers, myself included, called for calmer nerves and pointed to the situation’s silver linings: Hank would get some rest, the Rangers could learn to win without him, and backup Cam Talbot would be more than up to the task. In the ensuing weeks, Talbot and the Rangers exceeded even the most optimistic expectations, briefly vaulting to the top of the NHL standings. After an early acclimation period, during which he took mountains of unfair and undue criticism, Talbot has been an absolute wall. He’s pitched shutouts, he’s kept the team in games they might not have deserved to win, and he’s gained legions of fans.
The Rangers are now have a six point lead in the Metropolitan division, with less than ten games remaining in the season. With 99 points, they’re in a four-way tie for second place in the President’s Cup race for most points in the NHL. They’re only a point behind the Montreal Canadiens, and they have two games in hand on everyone else in the race. Hank is back to practicing with the team, and the date of his return is being planned. And if you can believe it, there’s talk of a goaltending controversy at Madison Square Garden. This is a classic case of pendulum-swing overreaction. To think that Cam Talbot’s emergence makes Lundqvist somehow obsolete or expendable is a stretch, to put it kindly.
Lest we forget, Henrik Lundqvist is one of the best goaltenders of his generation in the entire world of hockey. He’s been the de-facto face of the Rangers’ franchise for some time now, especially after the trade of Ryan Callahan. He’s led the Rangers through several years of high-level play, and he’s won games of enormous magnitude almost singlehandedly; in fact, the Rangers only became a member of the NHL’s current elite when they finally ceased to be the Henrik Lundqvist show. Even since they ceased to be a one-man show far too often, the Rangers have relied on Hank as their anchor on and off the ice. Until he missed the past week few weeks, Lundqvist might have been listed as the single most important Ranger by a majority of fans. Henrik is an emotional leader and a rallying point for the Rangers, and his importance goes well beyond the numbers–numbers which happen to be outstanding.
With Talbot now a proven quantity, the Rangers can ease Hank back into playing condition; moreover, they won’t have to run him into the ground to get through the grind of (hopefully) a long postseason. It’s got to have helped the team to know they can win games without Hank, and the Rangers’ defensive zone discipline showed improvement without him as a security blanket (of course, it would be oversimplifying things to suggest that his presence was the only reason for their defensive-zone lapses). Cam Talbot has been outstanding, and his emergence makes the Rangers even more of a Stanley Cup contender, but there shouldn’t be a goalie controversy at Madison Square Garden.