Henrik Lundqvist has been considered by many to be the best goaltender in the NHL, and he was treated that way when he signed a seven-year, $59.5 million contract extension with the New York Rangers last week.
It's now up to Lundqvist to start playing that way again if the Rangers want to be more than a middling team merely hovering around playoff contention.
After Lundqvist was yanked during the first period of a 4-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night, the Rangers' fourth straight loss, it seems he's nowhere close to that elite level.
The Rangers are in dire straits right now despite sitting at 15-17-1, two points out of a playoff spot in a Metropolitan Division that features the Pittsburgh Penguins and seven other teams that are playing AHL-level hockey.
They will be without captain Ryan Callahan due to a sprained left knee for four to six weeks, and defenseman Marc Staal is out indefinitely with a concussion, an injury similar to the one that cost him 36 games at the start of the 2011-12 season.
Staal's concussion history makes this latest brain injury an even bigger concern. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said doctors believe this concussion is not as serious as the previous one, but predicting recovery time with brain injuries is about as futile as the Rangers' offense at five-on-five this season.
With Staal out indefinitely and Callahan gone until potentially February, now would be the most opportune time for Lundqvist to rediscover the form that made the Rangers the best team in the Eastern Conference two years ago.
Lundqvist won the Vezina Trophy in 2012 and posted a .930 save percentage along the way. But he was especially incredible from Oct. 31 to Feb. 14 that season, when he posted a .944 save percentage (.952 at five-on-five) and six of his eight shutouts. That stretch transformed the Rangers from a team that was perennially fighting for the No. 8 spot in the East to a team that pushed for the best record in the regular season.
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Lundqvist hasn't been anywhere close to that this season, but if he can string together six weeks of that type of play—or something close to it—it would make a world of difference for the Rangers.
But right now, he looks like anything but The King.
After allowing three goals on 13 shots behind a porous Rangers defense on Thursday, Lundqvist has a .910 save percentage. At even strength, Lundqvist's save percentage is at .912, which ranks him 54th in the NHL. It's a staggering drop-off for Lundqvist, who has never had an even-strength save percentage lower than .920 in his career.
This isn't to put all the blame on the goaltender. Neil Perry received more support from his dad in Dead Poets Society when he told him he wanted to be an actor than Lundqvist has this season.
This is about Lundqvist finding a way to make one more save in tight games, even if it's a difficult one, when his team needs it most because that's what the best goaltender in the NHL would do.
The Rangers were locked in a 2-2 tie with the Bruins midway through the third period on Nov. 29 in Boston. Thanks to an all-too-familiar blown defensive-zone coverage, Zdeno Chara and his howitzer had a shot dead-center, with Lundqvist having a clear lane to see the shot. Chara blew it through Lundqvist, who appeared to flinch to the glove side, leaving his five-hole open for the game-winning goal.
Then on Dec. 7, the Rangers were in the process of letting a lead slip away against the New Jersey Devils. With the score once again 2-2, the Devils' Michael Ryder stepped around defenseman John Moore and beat Lundqvist through the legs to put the Devils ahead 3-2 late in the third period. Moore was unquestionably at fault, but again, the game's best goaltender didn't have the big save in him.
The Rangers rallied to force overtime in the dying seconds, but Lundqvist was again beaten by a long slap shot, this one from hard-shooting defenseman Eric Gelinas, that gave the Devils a 4-3 win.
Those aren't easy saves, to be sure.
But they're the type of saves the Rangers, and the man himself, expect Lundqvist to make. That's potentially three or four points left on the table as a result of Lundqvist failing to step up—three or four valuable points that could be the difference in a playoff race late in the season.
The Rangers have their deficiencies at forward and defense with Callahan and Staal out of the lineup. Heck, they have their deficiencies at forward and defense with Callahan and Staal in the lineup. But if there's one spot where they're supposed to be set this year and for the following seven years, it's in net with Lundqvist.
Lundqvist has been there for the Rangers in the past. They need him more than ever to be that goalie again before the season slips away.