By Sean Hartnett
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Henrik Lundqvist’s superb goaltending has generally pushed the Rangers beyond expectations season after season.
The 34-year-old has taken ordinary teams by the scruff of the neck and led them into the playoffs, and has spurred well-constructed rosters on to greatness by guiding them to the Eastern Conference finals and beyond.
His scorecard reads 10 playoff appearances in 11 seasons and a .921 career save percentage that trails only the legendary Dominik Hasek among goaltenders to make a minimum of 350 career appearances. But Lundqvist’s toughest challenge will begin when the Blueshirts open their 90th season on Oct. 13 against the rival Islanders at MSG.
Last season, the Blueshirts did not have a 70-point man or a 30-goal scorer. They spent the majority of the season chasing in their own end and finished 26th overall with a five-on-five Corsi For percentage of 47.4. Much of what made the Rangers click offensively last season is gone as a strained salary cap situation led to Keith Yandle being a casualty.
The Rangers do not possess a defenseman with the explosiveness, creativity and the ability to initiate attacks the way Yandle handled himself during his season-plus in New York. Last season, he became the first Rangers defenseman since Hall of Famer Brian Leetch to record at least 40 assists in a single season.
“He does a real good job of breaking the puck out for us, helping us come out clean,” head coach Alain Vigneault said of Yandle last season. “He’s able to beat that first forechecker and make that pass where we come out with speed.”
Vigneault and general manager Jeff Gorton are banking on veteran defensive duo Dan Girardi and Marc Staal turning back the clock. Girardi will turn 33 in April and Staal will be 30 in January. The pair has suffered a multitude of injuries after contributing to years of deep playoff runs, but April’s early playoff exit to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins allowed the pair to heal up.
“You can tell when you talk to them, they’ve turned the page on the past and are focused on right now,” Vigneault said on Sept. 22. “They seem to be in a good space mentally and physically. This is the first time in a long time that they’ve had a chance to recover from some of the bumps and bruises they might have had during the year and train for a good summer. They just seem anxious for this opportunity that the team has in front of them. They know they’re an important part of us having a successful season and I sense they want to prove they’re very good players.”
The possession-deficient play of Girardi and Staal was alarming last season. Among NHL defensemen that skated at least 750 minutes, Girardi finished last in five-on-five Corsi For percentage (41.7), while Staal was tied for 16th worst. Whether the duo’s struggles can be chalked up to the toll caused by injury or it was further evidence of their decline is open to debate. This season should provide the answer.
The Rangers are counting on a lot of ifs. How quickly can rookies Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey be counted on? Will promising defenseman Brady Skjei step into a prominent role and will captain Ryan McDonagh rebound after a down year? Will Rick Nash return to being a lead dog and get back to his 30-goal ways? Will this finally Chris Kreider’s breakout season? Will the arrival of talented center Mika Zibanejad and journeymen like Brandon Pirri and Adam Clendening spark a power play that finished 15th, 21st and 14th over the past three seasons?
If a number of factors the Rangers are counting on don’t go right, Lundqvist could be facing an even tougher task this season. Statistically, no goaltender faced a closer proximity of shots than he did last season. It certainly will hurt not having Yandle around, given the way he skates and moves the puck out of danger and helps sustain offensive zone time.
Lundqvist will make his first preseason appearance on Monday night, against the Flyers in Philadelphia. The plan is for him to split the game with Mackenzie Skapski and to play the full game when the Rangers host the Flyers on Thursday night. He is coming off a strong showing at the World Cup of Hockey, leading Sweden to the semifinals and enters the new season leaner and quicker after trimming down to 185 pounds.
“I think this game is a lot about determination and how much you want it,” Lundqvist said. “You talk about age — I want it as bad now as I did 10 years ago, maybe even more. I think that’s my biggest motivation going forward, going through training over the summer and preparing for next season.”
More than ever, the Rangers are going to need Lundqvist to once again be “The King.”
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey