Henrik Lundqvist has been the backbone of the New York Rangers since the 2005-06 NHL season. No matter what situation the team is in, he always seems to give them the chance to win with his exceptional goaltending and never say die attitude. No player means more to the Rangers’ success than Lundqvist – so that’s why on Jan. 31, in a game against the Carolina Hurricanes, the entire New York Rangers fan base held their breath when a deflected puck hit the star goaltender in the neck.
Lundqvist was down on the ice for several minutes while being attended to by the Rangers Head Athletic Trainer Jim Ramsay. He showed numerous signs of discomfort but after being checked out and seemingly feeling better, he got up, put his helmet back on and finished the game, backstopping the Rangers to a 4-1 victory over the Hurricanes. Lundqvist played the next game on Feb. 2 against the Florida Panthers, which the Rangers won 6-3, but soon after it was clear that there was something wrong with the “King.”
Cam Talbot, the Rangers backup goaltender, was due to start the next game against the Boston Bruins on Feb. 4, but little did he know that he was about to become the Rangers number one goalie for the next few weeks. It was soon revealed that Lundqvist had a vascular injury and in an article written by ESPN’s Katie Strang, it was revealed that if left unchecked and untreated, that Lundqvist could have developed a blood clot and had a stroke. The “King” needed his time to rest and the Rangers needed to find a way to win without him.
The Rangers have gone 8-1-2 since the injury to Lundqvist and now sit two points behind the Metropolitan Division leading New York Islanders and still have three games in hand. They haven’t played their best hockey at points during their recent streak, but they’ve played well enough to get wins and get points and that’s what matters at this point in the season. There have been highs and lows to this stretch of games without the “King.” Let’s start with the lows.
Cam Talbot has stepped into the starter’s role and at times he has looked good and at others, mediocre at best. His goaltending will still need to improve to give the Rangers a better chance to win on a nightly basis. The defense has also been suspect during this stretch of games by committing some bad turnovers or by not reading the flow of the game correctly. There have been a few instances, such as in the Rangers’ 4-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, where an opposing player has been left alone and made the team pay for it. Blue Jackets forward Marko Dano was left alone in front of Cam Talbot and scored, cutting the Rangers lead to 3-1. Defensive mistakes like that can’t happen if the Rangers hope to keep winning games.
Possibly the worst game during this stretch of games was against the Vancouver Canucks. The Rangers blew four one-goal leads and lost in a shootout. Poor defense and some suspect goaltending came into play that game and the Rangers need to make sure a loss like that doesn’t happen again.
Another injury that’s worth mentioning is the injury to Rangers’ forward, Jesper Fast. Since he hasn’t been able to play, Tanner “waste of money” Glass has been playing on the Rangers fourth-line. Fast is a responsible player in his own zone and makes great defensive plays. Glass, on the other hand, takes stupid penalties and costs the team with his poor play. The sooner Fast feels better and Glass is out of the lineup, the better it will be for the team.
The good things about this recent stretch of games without Lundqvist is that the Rangers as a whole have been scoring a lot of goals and coach Alain Vigneault has found some line combinations that really work. They have scored 41 goals in the 11 games without Lundqvist.
Forward Rick Nash is now up to 37 goals on the season and forward Martin St. Louis has found his game again after a nasty goal drought. Derek Stepan is still averaging a point per game and the rest of the team has looked really good. The recently formed third-line of Carl Hagelin, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller has found great chemistry and the trio has looked great.
Forward Kevin Hayes is starting to become the player Rangers management envisioned when they signed him during the summer. He’s using his big frame to score goals and he’s been setting up his teammates with crisp passes. His development is crucial for the Rangers, not just for this year, but for many future seasons ahead.
The Rangers have had some key wins during the past 11 games earning victories over the Bruins, Maple Leafs, Avalanche, Coyotes, Sabres, Blue Jackets and Flames. Rangers 20-year-old rookie goaltender Mackenzie Skapski was in net for the win against the Sabres and got his first NHL win, but by far the best win was over the rival New York Islanders.
The Islanders had multiple two-goal leads in their game against the Rangers on Feb. 16 and Islander fans in Nassau Coliseum were chanting “You Can’t Beat Us!” about midway through the third period when the Islanders held a 5-3 lead over their big city rivals. The Rangers were about to show the Islanders and their fans why it’s never over till it’s over. After the chanting, the Rangers scored three unanswered goals to defeat the Islanders 6-5 at the Coliseum. That was the Rangers first victory over the Islanders this season and it showed the resilience the team has gained over the course of the season. We can’t beat you? We sure did.
The last thing I want to touch on is the upcoming trade deadline. The Rangers require help in the faceoff circle, a player like Antoine Vermette from the Arizona Coyotes. But the price for Vermette is most likely going to be too high at this point in the season. Would it be nice to have Kevin Hayes move back to his natural wing position on the third line? Yes, but the price might be too high for Vermette. Another option at center would be Mark Letestu of the Columbus Blue Jackets. He would be cheaper than Vermette and he wins more than 50 percent of his faceoffs. He is definitely an option should the Rangers make a move to acquire a center. What would a package for Letestu look like? A package of a pick and a prospect could get it done in my opinion.
Life without the “King” hasn’t been the total disaster some fans thought it would be. As long as the team can keep scoring and Talbot and the defense improve just a bit and stop the silly mistakes, the Rangers will continue to rise in the standings, and Lundqvist will have a joyous kingdom to return to.