By Sean Hartnett
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The NHL is not a one-goalie league. Gone are the days of top goaltenders putting in 70-game regular season workloads.
Nowadays, teams are crunching numbers to make sure their No. 1 netminder gets the right amount of rest and recovery time to be in peak physical condition in time for the playoffs.
As the Rangers close out the final stretch of the regular season, the two-to-three week absence of franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist means backup Antti Raanta will play a big role in deciding their playoff seeding. The Rangers currently hold the top wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with 12 games remaining. With 90 points in 70 games, only five points separate the Blueshirts from Metropolitan Division-leading Washington, though the Capitals have played two fewer games.
Prior to Monday’s home game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, head coach Alain Vigneault made it clear that he’s going to ride Raanta through a stretch of back-to-back sets that began on Sunday in Detroit. The Rangers’ next four games consist of a Friday-Saturday back-to-back against Florida and at Minnesota, before a trip to New Jersey, followed by a home meeting with the Islanders on March 21 and 22.
“Since we found out about Hank, we’re going on a game-to-game basis, but I also said Antti’s been wanting to play more games,” Vigneault said. “Now with Hank out, there’s an opportunity there. Our back-to-backs are spread out, so that’s what we’re doing.”
Because their back-to-backs are spaced out, it appears that Raanta will have enough recovery time to shoulder the load until Lundqvist is ready to return from a strained hip muscle. Backup Magnus Hellberg, who has only appeared in three career NHL games, posting a 3.55 goals-against average and a .786 save percentage, was optioned back to AHL Hartford on Tuesday, where he was 11-11-2 with a 2.91 GAA and a .902 save percentage in 31 games.
The move was likely made because the Rangers don’t play again until Friday. Hellberg could very well return before then.
Monday’s 3-2 defeat to the Bolts was a rare blemish in Raanta’s sparkling campaign. The 27-year-old Finn surrendered all three goals on just 16 shots. Raanta had entered the contest with outstanding numbers in the games he started this season, going 14-4 with a 2.08 GAA, a .931 save percentage and three shutouts.
Teammates have total faith in Raanta’s ability to perform at a high level until Lundqvist is physically ready to assume his usual place between the pipes. Through 25 games overall, Raanta is 14-7 with a 2.29 GAA and a .921 save percentage. Among goaltenders who have appeared in at least that many games this season, his save percentage is tied for eighth-best in the NHL.
“Everyone always talks about it, it’s a two-goalie league now,” Rangers alternate captain Derek Stepan said. “You’ve got to have two goaltenders who can play real strong. Antti’s played really good for us so far. Everyone in this group believes in him and everyone knows that he’s a solid goaltender.”
Alternate captain Marc Staal agreed.
“Since he’s been a Ranger, he’s been a solid presence in net,” Staal said. “We have all the confidence in the world that he’s able to do the job. He’s a great goaltender, who has a calm presence. Whether it’s Hank or him, it doesn’t really change the way we play. We have that same confidence going into every single game.”
Seeding can be a key factor in determining how far a team goes in the playoffs. A lengthy, physical series can empty a team’s tank. If the season were to end today, the Rangers would face the Montreal Canadiens in the first round, while the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets would engage in what many would expect to be a draining, nasty series.
If the Rangers finish in the top wild card spot, they will stay on the Atlantic side of the playoff bracket and their road to the Eastern Conference finals would be considerably easier. In that scenario, they would need to go through two of the Habs, Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins, should the trio finish 1-2-3 in the Atlantic.
While seeding is important, the most crucial factor heading into the postseason will be Lundqvist’s health. The Rangers enjoy a 14-point separation between themselves and the second wild card, so Raanta’s ability to take on a large workload in the final weeks will afford Lundqvist all the time he needs to return in top condition.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey