During the last three games, it has been pretty clear that there has been something strange going on in the New York Rangers' neighborhood. The team has looked out of sync, sloppy and it almost looked like they were skating through slime.
Alain Vigneault stated that his team needed to be better, but it was unclear who was going to be the first player to answer the call. With top netminder Henrik Lundqvist currently in the middle of a rut, Vigneault decided to go with his backup against the Philadelphia Flyers, and that decision may prove to be a catalyst for the Rangers getting back on track.
After an impressive victory on Wednesday Night Rivalry on NBC Sports, it is clear that Vigneault's message was received. "Goal Buster" Cam Talbot recorded a very important 31-save shutout against the Flyers, and his performance Wednesday night is exactly what the Rangers needed.
The Rangers clicked on all cylinders against the Flyers, and it was the third game in a row in which the Blueshirts scored a power-play goal. The goal was Rick Nash's 13th of the season, and it was another strong game for him.
In addition to playing well on special teams, New York also played a very buttoned-down defensive game, although it took some stupid penalties that could have given the Flyers life.
Fortunately for the Blueshirts, Talbot provided excellent goaltending time after time, and the Rangers were able to win a game while giving their starting netminder a sorely needed night off.
The Rangers are clearly at their best when Lundqvist is at the top of his game, and he is at his best when he is well rested. Characteristically, Lundqvist is a workhorse that hates surrendering his crease, but statistics show that he is a better goaltender when he starts fewer games.
|Henrik Lundqvist Win Percentage By Season|
I realize that Lundqvist is generally a slow starter, and his sample size is small this year, but the overreaching point should be clear. It is no coincidence that he puts up his best numbers when his workload is relatively light, and that is why it is great for both Lundqvist and the Rangers when Talbot can step in and earn the team a win.
Wednesday night's game was Talbot's fourth start of the season and his first win. The Caledonia, Ontario native was 0-2-1 in his three previous starts, and he was averaging 4.00 goals against per start.
Considering that the Rangers needed to get back on track in the worst of ways, it speaks volumes that Vigneault decided to give Talbot the nod over Lundqvist. Ultimately, Vigneault made the right choice, because King Henrik really needed a rest.
Lundqvist has started 15 of the Blueshirts' 19 games to date, and he has a 7-5-3 record, a 2.68 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage. These numbers are far from regal for King Henrik, so Vigneault's decision to play Talbot vs. Philadelphia made sense.
Last season, the Rangers were able to give Lundqvist 19 games off in 2013-14, and during that span, Talbot posted a 12-6-1 record with a 1.64 goals-against average, a .941 save percentage and three shutouts. Those numbers were amazing for Talbot but are clearly unsustainable.
While no one is expecting Talbot to put up the numbers he did last year, it goes without saying that the Rangers expect to win more games than they lose with him in net. Backups aren't going to put up elite numbers, but good ones can generally spell their starter when needed.
The schedule only gets tougher as the season continues, and there are going to be stretches in which Lundqvist may have to start double-digit games in a row. That is why it is important for the Rangers to get Talbot some starts when they can, because that will go a long way in keeping Lundqvist fresh.
There is no reason why Talbot shouldn't be in net Friday, and it would make sense for Vigneault to follow his strategy from last season.
Lundqvist struggled early on for the Rangers in 2013-14, and Vigneault decided to ride the hot hand with Talbot. The Rangers' Vezina Trophy-winning netminder hasn't been as bad this season as last, but it still makes sense to go with Talbot for another game and get the King back between the pipes against the Atlantic Division-leading Canadiens.
Ultimately, the Rangers are going to need to play consistent hockey in order to make the playoffs. Vigneault said it best by telling the media, including Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News: “(Lundqvist) is like the rest of our group. He’d be the first one to tell you: He needs to be better. Our whole group needs to be better. There’s no one guy. This is a team sport. Individual preparation but it’s a team game, and our execution, our commitment, our attention to detail as a team needs to get up a notch.”
Lundqvist will get back between the pipes soon, but why mess with a winning lineup right away?
The Rangers' attention to detail was clearly better against the Flyers, and they will need to be as sharp, if not sharper against the Sabres. Buffalo hasn't played well this season, but after recent wins vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs and the San Jose Sharks, the Rangers need to avoid falling victim to them in a potential trap game.
If the Rangers are ultimately bested, so be it, but at least there will be no reason why Lundqvist wouldn't be fresh enough to turn things around against Montreal.
Lundqvist is obviously the guy and will continue to be the guy, but if the Rangers can get him a second game off in a row and have a chance to win, it is a move worth making 60 percent of the time, all the time.
Stats via NHL.com and Hockey-Reference.