When an all-star goalie fails to make the big saves in a big game, everyone wonders if he was sick or just had an off game at a very inopportune time. It’s a big deal, but nothing to necessarily worry about. More than a game or two of less than stellar play, and what you start to hear is talk about a slump. When its weeks on end, the team and the fans become worried and the speculation begins.
This is what has happened to Henrik Lundqvist–he has been having issues since before Thanksgiving. That is more than just a few weeks, and, by now, the speculation is rampant. The ones I am most hearing have to do with his age–Lundqvist is approaching 35 years old, and he may have lost a slight edge on his lateral movement and/or his eyesight is just not the same as it was just a year ago.
Okay, now let’s get real. Is the speculation physically possible? Sure, but is it likely? Absolutely not. Every goalie loses confidence once in awhile–they all go through spells where the puck just does not look like the same big saucer it does when they are “in the zone.” It happened to Marty Brodeur, it happened to Patrick Roy, and it happened to Dominik Hasek. And now, it is happening to Lundqvist.
So, if we are wondering how Lundqvist can recover his form, one of the things we should be looking at is how did the best goalies of the modern era get out of it. The answer is that they played and played, and then Brodeur, Roy, and Hasek rebounded to have great end of careers. But, critically, each of these netminders got help to get out of their slump. Help from a defense that stepped up and made miracles happen in front of their netminder.
Lundqvist can rebound too, but he will need the same help. Help that he is not getting.
It is true that the Rangers have lost three games since the end of the bye week (including last night’s 7-6 loss to the Dallas Stars) and Lundqvist has given up 16 goals since Friday. But it is only partly Lundqvist’s fault, for if we are at all honest, these losses couple Lundqvist’s lack of confidence with some of the worst defense seen since the 1962 New York Mets.
In fact, in my opinion, it’s the defense that we should be more worried about than about Lundqvist. It was so bad last night that the Stars’ players were often alone without any coverage in front of Lundqvist’s net. How can you expect a netminder, who is trying to regain his timing to be able to focus when no one is properly covering his man? Positioning, gap control, blocking shots–everything was a disaster last night. And it was not the first night that things were bad–it was just the first night that they were this bad.
Looking at what has changed, one must at least give some thought to the fact that there have been 22 goals given up, in five games, since Marc Staal went down. Now, Staal is not the be all and end all of any team’s defense, and his return mat not fix Lundqvist’s problem. But, like it or not, Staal is an important piece of the blueline and, within the current framework, his return is critical to giving Lundqvist a chance to regain his confidence.
Whether he should be on the team at this point, whether the Rangers should have given him the contract they did, etc. etc., is moot at this point. He is needed for this team (and Lundqvist) to begin to recover. He provides a certain stability to the D that does not exist when Adam Clendening takes his place. And no matter how much Alain Vigneault mixes up the pairings, without Staal or some other defensive stalwart to replace him, it really will not help.
The best thing for Lundqvist and New York would be both the return of Staal and the addition of a defensive blueliner. Luckily, Staal is already skating, but his return is still up in the air. (Concussion symptoms, particularly when this is not the first time he suffered this injury, are unpredictable.) But what to do about adding a blueliner? Assuming that the powers that be feel that prospect Ryan Graves is not yet ready for prime time, a trade now is key. Now, not a month (or month and a half) from now.
Lundqvist’s recovery to form may depend on it, as will the Rangers’ post-season hopes.