Henrik Lundqvist watches the puck trickle into the net as he allows six goals for the second consecutive game.
TAMPA – Winning when Rick Nash disappears is difficult. Winning with Henrik Lundqvist playing the way he did in Game 3 is impossible.
This is two straight games now in which Lundqvist has surrendered six goals, the first time that’s happened since Oct. 12 and 14 against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Islanders, but that’s not even the heart of the issue.
The real indictment of Lundqvist individually was Nikita Kucherov’s game-winning overtime goal on Wednesday night, a 27-foot wrist shot stick side. It’s tough to tell what was more frightening: That the puck went in, or – given how often the Lightning has lit up the King lately – that it wasn’t a total surprise.
The Lightning is averaging 4.67 goals per game on Lundqvist and the Rangers through six matches, regular season and playoffs combined, with the 28-goal ledger reading: Five, four, six, one, six and six. That includes only one empty-netter on Dec. 1.
At his locker, Lundqvist was flabbergasted, shaking his head, sighing, slouching, confused and alone.
“Uh, for some reason I don’t pick it up,” Lundqvist said of Kucherov’s shot. “When it comes at me, it looks like it’s going toward me and then I’m just late reacting. It’s (pause) I have to look at the video (to see) why I didn’t pick it up. It’s just (sigh) it’s a tough one. It really is.”
Then he said it: “As a team we need to be a little bit better, but also I have to be better, because we’re not going to win if I give up six goals.”
Captain Ryan McDonagh tried to accept some blame.
“I mean obviously I was a little bit soft on the gap,” McDonagh said. “A guy’s changing (from Tampa’s bench) so it’s kind of pulling out me. I have to try and be a little bit better with the gap.”
Lundqvist skates off the ice as he tries to figure out what has gone wrong the last two games.
This goal was on Lundqvist, though, and Lundqvist alone.
Vigneault hasn’t sat Martin St. Louis, demoted Nash or benched Boyle, so don’t expect him to can the King for backup Cam Talbot. Now, this is about the rest of the Rangers picking up their star goalie, for even when they held a 2-0 lead less than 10 minutes in, something didn’t feel right.
Dominic Moore’s early penalty, Dan Boyle’s early turnover before Steven Stamkos’ first-period goal, McDonagh’s and Lundqvist’s miscues before the Lightning captain tallied to make it 2-1 all foreshadowed the Lightning’s dominant second period.
Lundqvist, after all, had saved an Alex Killorn breakaway in the first and a J.T. Brown breakaway in overtime, and yet six of the 40 shots he faced still got by thanks to a stampede of Lightning horses with wide open ice and too much time to strike.
The Rangers’ sloppiness bred lapses like Chris Kreider’s leaving Tyler Johnson, the leading scorer in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, all alone at the crease on a four-on-four to tap in his 12th in 16 games. It was like leaving NBA MVP Stephen Curry open at the three-point line. Insanity. And that craziness got to Lundqvist mentally and technically, just as it had in Game 2.
“It’s really challenging for me the way they find open ice in the slot, scoring chances right in front,” Lundqvist said. “I just need to dig deeper, try to remain consistent with the game plan. You try to challenge the shooter and then they pass, and sometimes you stay back … When the shooters have more time in the slot, as a goalie the toughest part is sometimes being patient. If I do that, it will make a difference.”
Alternate captain Marc Staal insisted “I don’t think anyone here is concered with Hank. That’s the least of our concerns right now.” Coach Alain Vigneault, when asked directly if he needed more saves, gave simply a general answer about the flow of the game, adding later “Hank had stopped a breakaway just before that, giving us a chance. Sometimes stuff happens.”
And yes, Lundqvist was correct to point out that these last two games have been worrisomely “similar” to those three losses in 15 days to Tampa from Nov. 17 through Dec. 1, in how the Lightning “move the puck, the way they find openings, they’re testing our defense and our positioning.”
But let’s face it: The Rangers showed their trademark resilience clawing back to tie it. The power play cashed in twice for a second straight game for the first time in 2014-15. And all they needed was a save.
And they didn’t get it.
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