By Sean Hartnett
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For 12 seasons, the Rangers have banked on franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist being nothing short of spectacular.
Lundqvist covered up defensive blemishes for much of last season, while posting a .920 save percentage to match his career average.
But who could have envisioned the perennially steady Swede running into a funk a season later at the youthful goaltending age of 34?
This season, the Rangers have regressed defensively and Lundqvist has not been himself for large stretches. His .902 save percentage is an outlier in a career built on otherworldly consistency and dependability. Lundqvist has allowed four or more goals in four consecutive appearances, as his January save percentage fell to .841.
His performance in Tuesday’s wild 7-6 home defeat to the Dallas Stars was easily the low point of a headscratching individual campaign. Lundqvist surrendered seven goals on 27 shots and was replaced by backup Magnus Hellberg at the start of the third period.
Following the mistake-heavy defeat, Lundqvist’s teammates put the blame squarely on themselves. There was an absence of structure from the Rangers for two whole periods. Their breakdowns were frequent as they were careless with puck management. All in all, Lundqvist was abandoned in his crease and given no chance to get into a rhythm.
“It’s actually quite embarrassing. It’s terrible. Good teams don’t leave their goalies out to dry like that,” alternate captain Derek Stepan said. “That’s just unacceptable. It’s simple stuff. It just comes down to working hard and working smart. We have to learn that the first two periods were so unacceptable. Our goaltender is working his butt off to try to get back to the Hank we all know. For us to do that to him tonight is a joke.”
“Any time you get booed off the ice by your home crowd, it’s not a very good feeling,” J.T. Miller added. “To leave one of the best goalies in the league (out to dry), one of our leaders that’s been here for 12 years … it doesn’t sit well with the team. We all knew we had to be better. It’s a shame that we put ourselves in that spot to score three in the last period and come up short. We seem to find ways to give up too many, too quickly. We’ve got to make sure we respond after goals against. Those are just as big as when we have goals for.”
By no means should Lundqvist be absolved from the blame in the Rangers’ 2-4 January slide. He has demonstrated for over a decade that he’s capable of carrying this team when its structure falls apart. That said, he has been the guy pushing the boulder up the hill largely on his own. There has to be more hands on deck to ease the tremendous burden being placed on him.
Right now, the Rangers’ No. 1 netminder appears short on confidence and is trying to overcompensate for an underperforming group of blue liners. Lundqvist is known for playing deep in his net, with a high stance and movement kept to a minimum. On Tuesday, he was a jitterbug. You can see that he’s pressing and trying to do too much to will his team to victories.
“It’s tough,” Lundqvist said. “I feel like it’s embarrassing, frustrating, and disappointing, at the same time. I spent the last 24 hours really working hard and trying to prepare for this game and you come out and get a pretty good start. Then our first period, there were a couple missed plays where they made us pay. Most goals were scored right in front.
“As a goalie, you need to just be more aware, I guess,” he added. “The bottom line is I need to find another level; it’s not good enough. Obviously, when you’re looking for confidence and a good feeling you’re hoping for a game where there’s a lot of structure and shots are more to the outside, but that’s not the case right now. There are a lot of opportunities right in front and I just need to find a way to get going. But it’s hard when you’re trying to do all the right things and it’s not paying off right now.
Could he be thinking too much?
“The mental aspect … if you’re not in the right place you start making technical mistakes,” Lundqvist said. “Sometimes the game can help you with the structure. The last couple games there’s been some chances where there’s a lot of bouncing around right in front and you try to be in the right place, but you’re not. You just need to keep working hard here. I work as hard as I can right now in practice. I try to prepare mentally. I think I just need some good momentum going my way.”
Top to bottom, across four forward lines and three defensive pairs, the Rangers owe it to Lundqvist to raise their game. It has been long overdue for his teammates to shoulder more of the load.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey