The New York Rangers have gotten hot since an awful start, but the pressure they’re putting on their goaltenders maybe prove to be too much to bear.
The New York Rangers are making Henrik Lundqvist look really, really good these days – and that’s not necessarily a positive development.
Yes, the Blueshirts have played like a different team since their 3-7-2 start, going 16-5-2 since to lift themselves back into the thick of things in the Eastern Conference playoff race. There are plenty of positives to celebrate amid this resurgence – none more so than the fantastic play of Lundqvist, who seems to be performing as well as ever at age 35.
Unfortunately, that brilliance could be covering up some major warning signs.
The Rangers did well to earn a point in a 4-3 shootout road loss to rising New Jersey on Thursday. If not for Lundqvist’s 45 saves, though, it’s clear the Blueshirts would have been blown out of the building by the relentless Devils.
The Rangers allowed 40 or more shots for the eighth time in the past 16 games. They are giving up 33.63 per game on the season, fourth-highest in the league.
There are plenty of appropriate adjectives to attach to that stat, but perhaps the most useful one is “unsustainable.”
“It was tough. It was definitely tough,” Lundqvist told Matt Calamia of NYRangers.com. “It’s important for me to stay calm, but it’s hard at times when we just gave away the puck a lot.”
The King was referring to Thursday’s loss, but he could have just as easily been describing much of this season. Lundqvist faced at least 30 shots for the sixth time in his last seven outings and at least 40 shots for the fifth time in 2017-18.
Even in a 4-1 victory over Anaheim on Tuesday that was the club’s third straight, Lundqvist faced 40 shots.
“I’m happy we got the point,” Lundqvist told Calamia after the loss to the Devils in which the Rangers were out-attempted 72-49. “We battled at times, but we’ve got to be better in a game like this where it’s an important game. They’re a team that’s right ahead of us. We need to take a good look in the mirror because we have to be better in the next game.”
Coach Alain Vigneault is riding Lundqvist hard, playing him in 30 of the club’s 35 games including both ends of a pair of back-to-backs in just over a week – a schedule unheard of for the club’s best player in recent seasons.
Part of that decision is a product of trying to overcome the rough start to the season. Part of it is Vigneault’s lack of comfort with backup Ondrej Pavelec, who in his past two outings has, of course, faced more than 40 shots each time – making 41 saves in a 4-3 victory over Pittsburgh on Dec. 5 and a 2-1 shootout loss to Dallas on Dec. 11 in which he stopped 44.
In a familiar theme, Pavelec was the team’s best player against the Stars and prevented the Rangers from being on the wrong end of a lopsided loss in one of their worst efforts of the season.
Lundqvist appears to be thriving under the heavy workload and big shot totals. Pavelec has done the same when he’s gotten the nod recently. So what’s the problem?
The simple answer: If the assault on the Rangers’ net continues and the goaltending dips even slightly, it’s obvious that the Blueshirts will be in trouble.
“We just didn’t play well. No system in the world can defend the amount of turnovers we had in the first two periods, and it started with the first shift of the game,” Vigneault told Calamia. “At the end of the day, you have to make plays with the puck. We didn’t make plays and they got some good looks on it.”
Vigneault delivered his message in words and actions. Kevin Shattenkirk, who had been so good since a rough start, was benched for the final 7:28 of regulation. Shattenkirk’s turnover late in the second period led to a short-handed New Jersey goal and he also took a pair of penalties in the contest.
Even worse was top-pair defenseman Nick Holden, who despite scoring a goal committed numerous turnovers and failed to put a body on former Ranger Brian Boyle when the big center glided unchallenged to the front of the net to score the tying goal in the third that sent the game to overtime.
The defense, which struggled mightily out of the gate this season before steadying somewhat, is again in the crosshairs and has to tighten up if the Rangers are going to maintain this run. The operative word, again, is unsustainable: Can anyone envision this team continuing to win if it consistently gives up 40-45 shots per game? Can any team succeed that way?
The Rangers were already dealing with one long-term problem that might need to be addressed via trade later in the season – the lack of depth at center that’s forced J.T. Miller, so effective playing on the wing, into the middle. Adding a defenseman, one of the NHL’s hottest – and thus, most expensive – commodities, will prove even more difficult.
The promising Neal Pionk waits at Hartford, but it’s a lot to ask a 22-year-old who’s in his first season as a pro to be the stabilizing force for the entire defense.
So for now, the Rangers need to focus on cleaning it up internally before Lundqvist runs out of gas before the new year – or injures himself trying to make spectacular save after spectacular save.
The chances seem good, however, that he’ll be awfully busy again Saturday with the high-powered Toronto Maple Leafs coming to town. What also seems apparent is that Lundqvist’s frustration with the amount of rubber he’s facing is bubbling a little.
“We all have to own up to it,” Lundqvist said, “and answer on Saturday.”