By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers have two goalies who are playing exceptionally well, but there isn’t a controversy brewing at the World’s Most Famous Arena. This is and always has been Henrik Lundqvist’s job.
At 3:18 p.m. Tuesday, the Rangers announced that Lundqvist has been medically cleared to return to full team practices following an examination and consultation with specialists. Hours earlier, a team spokesman was unable to provide an update on Lundqvist’s condition following the Rangers’ noon practice and said that the 33-year-old netminder was yet to face high shots.
The news of Lundqvist being physically able to return to full practices brought immediate delight to Rangers fans. Despite Cam Talbot playing every bit like a No. 1 goalie, Lundqvist unequivocally gives the Blueshirts the best chance to surpass last season’s success and lift Lord Stanley.
During the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, Lundqvist shined the brightest under the most intense pressure. He willed the Rangers to wins through sheer unbreakable mental strength and countless how-did-he-do-that saves. Lundqvist nearly carried last year’s team to a championship while their goal scoring dried up during their run to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, where they were defeated by the Los Angeles Kings in five games.
This year, the Rangers are a different team. Their goals-per-game of 3.00 is third-highest in the NHL. Last season, the Rangers were 18th overall with 2.61 G/GP. Their G/GP fell to 2.40 during the 2014 playoffs.
Rick Nash has elevated his game to near Hart Trophy-caliber levels. Dan Boyle and the recently acquired Keith Yandle are two weapons that give the Rangers a different look on the power play given their creativity, anticipation and quick legs. After an injury-hit first half, Boyle now looks more like himself. Don’t let one point in 11 games fool you, Boyle’s game is trending in the right direction. With every week that passes, Yandle will have gained a better understanding of his new teammates and Alain Vigneault’s uptempo system.
Martin St. Louis and rock-solid defenseman Kevin Klein are both expected to return before the playoffs. The Rangers announced on Monday that St. Louis would be sidelined for 10 to 14 days due to a lower-body injury suffered against the Florida Panthers on Sunday. Panthers defenseman Dmitry Kulikov appeared to fall on St. Louis’ right knee during the third period.
Klein is expected to miss roughly three more weeks after being struck in the left arm by an Alex Ovechkin shot on March 11. The 30-year-old defenseman is even with Nash for a team-leading plus-minus of +24.
Once St. Louis and Klein return to full health and Lundqvist is back up to speed, there’s very little that can stop the Rangers from hoisting the Cup. Lundqvist has not faced game action since Feb. 2.
His first opportunity to resume practicing with teammates will be at 11 a.m. Friday before the Rangers depart for Carolina. The Rangers don’t have have practices scheduled for Wednesday or Thursday. In a best-case scenario, Lundqvist could start roughly 10 games before the playoffs begin.
While Talbot has exceeded all expectations, he is unproven in the playoffs. The 27-year-old has only stood in net for 46 career playoff minutes in relief of Lundqvist.
Through 29 games, Talbot’s numbers are very Lundqvist-like. He has gone 13-2-3 during Lundqvist’s absence. The Ontario native is 17-6-4 with a 2.19 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage. Lundqvist is 25-11-3 with a 2.25 GAA and a .922 save percentage. Both goalies have recorded five shutouts this season.
Talbot could very well go on to become a solid starting goalie for another franchise. It’s very possible that the Rangers will explore trading Talbot during the offseason when his trade value is at its peak. Talbot agreed a one-year extension worth $1.45 million that will kick in next season.
Just like an old Western where one man stays and the other gets out of Dodge, this town isn’t big enough for two top goaltenders.
This franchise and this city has always belonged to King Henrik.
Follow Sean on Twitter – @HartnettHockey.