The New York Rangers announced Saturday morning that Henrik Lundqvist is out for the next 2-3 weeks with a lower body injury.
Lundqvist told reporters that he hurt his hip in the first period of his most recent start Tuesday against the Florida Panthers, a game he would play to its conclusion, a 5-2 victory, and finish with 43 saves. However, he felt more pain the following day, and did not dress for Thursday 4-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh.
Head coach Alain Vigneault said on Saturday that the injury is a muscle strain in Lundqvist’s hip, and that the team’s medical personnel assured him that the club’s No. 1 goalie would be back before the playoffs.
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) March 11, 2017
Still, Saturday’s announcement is an unwelcome surprise, and has caused some concern considering that the Stanley Cup playoffs are a little more than four weeks away.
The injury also comes at a time when Lundqvist is playing far better than earlier in the season, when an extremely uneven first half featured the most inconsistent play of his 12-year career.
Lundqvist, who earlier this week passed Grant Fuhr for 10th place on the NHL’s all-time wins list while also becoming only the third goalie in league history to win 30 games in 11 seasons, is the most important New York Ranger come playoff time. Yet his current injury is not a devastating blow to the Blueshirts for two important reasons.
After practice Saturday, Antti Raanta said, “I don’t try to be Hank. I just try to be myself.”
That’s plenty good enough, because in Raanta the Rangers have one of the best, and most reliable, back up goaltenders in the league.
This season Raanta has appeared in 23 games, making 19 starts. He is 13-6-0 with a 2.32 GAA, .922 save percentage, and a career-high three shutouts. His goals against average and save percentage are superior to Lundqvist’s numbers, albeit in fewer than half the amount of games and minutes Lundqvist played; and Raanta already tied his career-best in wins and is two appearances shy of equaling his career-high in that category.
Back In December, Raanta started four games in a row while a healthy, yet struggling, Lundqvist sat for the longest such stretch of his career. Raanta posted back to back shutouts during that stretch, and allowed only three goals in the four starts, further proof that the Rangers are in good hands with Lundqvist sidelined the next few weeks.
Raanta’s marvelous 38-save gem on Monday, a 1-0 overtime victory in Tampa over the Lightning, is just the latest example of why the Blueshirts feel secure moving forward in the month of March without their No. 1.
Magnus Hellberg, the 25 year-old Swedish netminder who has all 51 minutes of NHL playing time over three career mop up relief appearances, is up from Hartford to serve as Raanta’s back up now. And he just might get his first NHL start sometime in the next 2-3 weeks.
The Rangers have four sets of back to backs coming up on the schedule, and you’d have to think Hellberg will get at least one start somewhere in there.
“Our games, other than the back to backs, are pretty spread out,” said Vigneault. “So, we’ll take it a game at a time, see how (Raanta) feels, and take it from there.”
With 14 games left on their regular season schedule, the Rangers are in a very comfortable spot. They are 13 points up on the Islanders, the Eastern Conference’s second wild card team, and 14 ahead of the ninth-place Maple Leafs.
Simply, the Rangers are making the playoffs. With or without Lundqvist the next 2-3 weeks, it is almost impossible to picture a team that has lost as many as three consecutive games only once all season collapse as badly as the Rangers would have to blow a post-season berth.
In addition, the Rangers are not necessarily fighting for a better playoff seeding either. By finishing fourth in the Metropolitan Division, the Blueshirts would cross over in the first two rounds of the playoffs and play Atlantic Division opponents.
While nothing is a given –and keep in mind the Rangers lost all three games against the Atlantic-leading Montreal this season and Carey Price is 15-5-1 lifetime against New York– crossing over and thus avoiding the Battle Royale that shapes up in the Metro with powerhouses Washington, Pittsburgh, and Columbus should, in theory, benefit the Rangers.
So, with Lundqvist sidelined, there’s no reason to panic about how this could affect the team’s place in the standings because they have to like where they are now.
With the expected return Sunday of injured forwards Rick Nash and Michael Grabner, the Rangers will again be healthy up front. Dan Girardi likely is back from injury in a week or so, and that’ll get the top-six on defense in order, leaving Lundqvist as the lone important remaining player needing to return before the playoffs begin (defenseman Kevin Klein is out indefinitely, but he is now an extra d-man following the acquisition of Brendan Smith).
As long as Henrik is healthy and gets a handful of starts before the post-season begins, there is no reason for the Rangers to sweat the next four weeks.
Jim Cerny has covered the National Hockey League for more than two decades. He has handled play by play duties for the New York Islanders, hosted the NHL Live talk show, been a hockey writer for The New York Times, and spent the previous nine years as the Digital Content Producer for the New York Rangers offical team web sites and social media accounts.