Here’s the best and only way New York Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault needs to handle Henrik Lundqvist the rest of the way.
While the New York Rangers current winning streak has been fueled by a balanced scoring attack, the biggest positive from it has been the strong play of goalie Henrik Lundqvist. The King, who has started all four games during the win streak, has looked like the same player who carried the Blueshirts on his back to 2014 Stanley Cup Finals.
Lundqvist made some big saves down the stretch of Thursday’s 4-3 come-from-behind victory against the Nashville Predators. However, most encouraging of all was his 43-save effort in a 4-1 victory on Tuesday against offensive-powered Anaheim Ducks.
The crazy thing is despite all this talk about needing to get Lundqvist more rest, he has seemed to play his best when he’s consistently starting games.
Take the Rangers first game back after the all-star break as an example. After nearly a week off, the team kicked off the second half of the season with a Metro Division clash against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Lundqvist ended up getting pulled midway through the second period of that game after giving up three goals (two of which were soft goals) in a 6-4 defeat. How did he respond to that dreadful performance? By putting forth a stellar performance in net two nights later in a 2-1 road victory against the Buffalo Sabres followed by three victories at home after that.
Another example comes from the middle of last December. Amid concerns he was losing his form, Lundqvist had three impressive starts over four days where he has a brick wall in road wins against the Dallas Stars and Predators and then stood tall in a thrilling shootout victory at the Garden against the New Jersey Devils. Yet, two nights later against the Penguins in Pittsburgh, head coach Alain Vigneault started Antti Raanta in net. This clearly proved to be too much rest for Lundqvist as three nights later, he did not even make it through the second period in a 7-4 home loss to the Minnesota Wild.
The more Lundqvist gets to play, the more he stays in a rhythm while maintaining his usual form in goal. However, if the Rangers want to go deep in the playoffs, they will have to find a way to get him some rest so he doesn’t burn out.
The question then becomes, “How do you manage to keep him rested without throwing him off his game?”
The best idea for the Rangers would be when they have games on back-to-back nights to have Raanta start one of them. Lundqvist has shown he starts to get rusty when he goes more than three or four days without playing, so it is essential to make sure he doesn’t get extended time off, but they need to find a middle ground to make sure that he doesn’t run out of gas. Having him sit one of the games when they’re playing consecutive nights could solve that dilemma.
Over the next two weeks, the Rangers do not have any games on back-to-back nights. Therefore, barring some sort of disaster where he really struggles, Lundqvist should be starting every game for the Rangers during that time span. It is after that, however, that the team will find themselves playing in two straight nights several times. Those are the games they’ll need to look to give Lundqvist some rest.
The Rangers should know from years past that the more rested Lundqvist is the better a chance the Rangers have to advance deep in the playoffs. In 2014, having Cam Talbot as a solid backup provided Lundqvist enough stamina to endure two series that went seven games against the Philadelphia Flyers and Penguins before taking out the Montreal Canadiens in six games.
For most of this season, Raanta has been solid in goal and has done a tremendous job on several occasions filing in for Lundqvist when he struggled. There is no reason to think he can’t do what Talbot did during his two years in New York.
The Rangers need to make sure Lundqvist keeps his strong rhythm. However, when their schedule picks up as March approaches, they also need to make sure he’s getting some time to rest.