Now the Rangers need Henrik Lundqvist more than ever.
LOS ANGELES — Rangers backup goalie Antti Raanta has done his job superbly the past month.
The Finnish netminder has built a 5-1-0 record in his last six starts, making 175 stops on 188 shots (.930 save percentage). He helped the Rangers withstand Henrik Lundqvist’s three-game absence from March 4-8 due to neck spasms. Wednesday night, Raanta made 22 saves to open this three-game California road trip for an important 2-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks.
“This is a huge win for the team and a great way to start this road trip,” Raanta said after stopping 11 shots in the third.
That said, now is the time for Alain Vigneault to ride Henrik Lundqvist almost entirely down the stretch, perhaps for as many as 10 starts in the Blueshirts’ remaining 12 regular season games, due to the tight standings and the King’s preference to play himself into playoff form.
Thursday night’s start against the L.A. Kings at Staples Center would be Lundqvist’s first in this building since the Rangers’ Game 5 double-OT 2014 Stanley Cup Final elimination on this same ice.
Former backup Cam Talbot started last year’s 4-3 win here on the second night of a back-to-back. Lundqvist admitted to the Daily News in the hallway after that Jan. 8, 2015 victory that it was “weird being here,” where he’ll always remember “a great run but also the missed opportunity.”
The King must leave that disappointment in the distant past, though, because the second-seeded Rangers (40-23-7, 87 points) entered Thursday’s match without any separation ahead of the third-seeded Islanders (85 points, two games in hand) and wild-card Pittsburgh Penguins (82 points, game in hand). Plus, the Philadelphia Flyers (80 points, game in hand) won’t go away, either.
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist reacts as the Kings celebrate the game-winning goal by defenseman Alec Martinez during the second overtime period in Game Five of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.
Vigneault started Lundqvist for 13 of the Blueshirts’ final 15 games in 2014 during a hard charge for the two-seed. It would have been 14 of 15 except he rested Lundqvist in the final, meaningless match in Montreal.
Last spring, Vigneault started Lundqvist for seven of the President Trophy-winning Rangers’ final nine games to get him right after missing Feb. 3-March 27 with a partially torn blood vessel in his neck.
Last Saturday, Lundqvist was excellent in a 40-save overtime loss in Detroit in his first game back from injury, but he was only average in Sunday’s loss to the Penguins. He needs more work, and the Rangers need him at his top form because the schedule ahead is unforgiving.
Lundqvist, already tabbed to start at the Kings and San Jose Sharks this week, presumably will start any remaining games against playoff contenders or division opponents. That includes six matches, all at the Garden, against the Florida Panthers (March 21), Boston Bruins (March 23), Penguins (March 27), Tampa Bay Lightning (April 5), Islanders (April 7) and Red Wings (April 9, season finale).
The division games will be most pivotal. The Rangers’ record against Metropolitan teams is 13-9-4, or 13 wins and 13 losses. They are 1-4-1 in six combined games against the Isles and Penguins.
That leaves Raanta starting twice more in back-to-backs at Montreal (March 26) and at Columbus (April 4). An April 2 home test against the Buffalo Sabres normally might look like the perfect night to play a backup, but with every point so crucial and the Blueshirts in need of a tip-top Lundqvist, No. 30 might as well start that one, too.