By Sean Hartnett
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Since Feb. 4, Rangers goaltender Cam Talbot has surpassed expectations while franchise netminder Henrik Lundqvist remains sidelined indefinitely due to a vascular injury.
Lundqvist still hasn’t been cleared for contact and will not accompany the Rangers for the remainder of their road swing, which concludes in Buffalo on Saturday. Head coach Alain Vigneault and team spokesman John Rosasco are yet to provide an update on Lundqvist’s status.
For however long Lundqvist remains sidelined, the Rangers are in excellent hands with Talbot. The 27-year-old is playing like a true No. 1 goalie while the Rangers chase after a Metropolitan Division title and top playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
“You see the standings every day and you know what we’re battling for,” Talbot said prior to Tuesday’s victory. “Both teams know what’s on the line. The team that doesn’t flinch in the end is going to win the game.”
Unflinching is exactly what Talbot was on Tuesday night. He stood tall when the Rangers continued their habit of buckling in the first period when matched up against the aggressive Isles. The Islanders pinned the Rangers deep for the majority of the first period, dominated zone time and outshot the Rangers 13-7.
The Rangers eventually rebounded to control play in the second period, but a late second-period turnover by J.T. Miller allowed Josh Bailey to spring on a breakaway. Bailey attempted to go five-hole, but “The Goalbuster” was up to the task, making a cool save under pressure. Talbot went on to save 29 of 30 shots.
Thanks to Talbot’s incredible performances, the Rangers are now just one point behind the Islanders in the Metropolitan Division and have four games in hand. Talbot is 6-1-1 with a 1.61 goals-against average, a .946 save percentage and two shutouts in his last eight games.
Over the past four games, Talbot has played lights out. He has posted a 3-0-1 record with a 0.99 goals-against average, a .966 save percentage and one shutout. His .922 save percentage and five shutouts have equaled Lundqvist. Talbot is 11-2-3 while injury has forced King Henrik to temporarily abdicate his throne.
The Montreal Canadiens currently hold top position in the Eastern Conference, having gained 91 points through 67 games. Sitting just two points behind are the Rangers, who have two games in hand.
Talbot will start in the second of back-to-back nights against the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center. His next task will be keeping two of the league’s top-three point getters in Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom quiet.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD FOR TALBOT?
There will be a slew of teams hoping to entice Rangers general manager Glen Sather into dealing away “The Goalbuster” during the summer. Having signed a one-year extension on Dec. 19, Talbot will earn $1.45 million next season.
Considering the Rangers’ cap crunch, it’s likely that Talbot will be playing somewhere other than Madison Square Garden next season. Every bit of cap space is precious. If the Rangers are able to locate a more affordable backup in the offseason, the wise move is to deal Talbot at a time when his stock is the highest and a growing number of admiring GMs are knocking on Sather’s door with offers.
For now, Talbot has been nothing short of exceptional between the pipes for his current employer. Without him, there’s no way the Rangers would have kept pace with the Isles and be in position to push for the top seed in the East.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.