With the promising news that Ryan McDonagh is on the way back after a concussion, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault now has another tear in the fabric to mend: How to move forward with a backup goaltender who is somewhat of an unknown commodity down the stretch.
Goaltenders have vexed Vigneault in recent years. In the 2011 and 2102 playoffs, and the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season in Vancouver, he shuffled Cory Schneider and veteran Roberto Luongo, which sent the Canucks’ fans and the media into a tizzy. Last season, Vigneault and the Rangers were fortunate that Cam Talbot rose to the occasion.
It was Talbot or bust when Henrik Lundqvist went down with a neck vessel injury on Jan. 31 last season. Talbot responded big-time: In the 25 games Lundqvist missed, the Rangers picked up 39 out of a possible 50 points. Talbot, now in Edmonton, played in 23 of those games.
This year’s backup, Antti Raanta, the Finnish netminder who was acquired from Chicago in exchange for Ryan Haggerty on June 27, was expected to start about 20 games. Raanta won his first four starts, against San Jose, Calgary, Arizona and Toronto. Then he lost four straight, including a bad performance on Dec. 12 in Calgary. Five days later, he was concussed by Wild defenseman Marco Scandella’s slap shot to the mask.
With Vigneault relying on Lundqvist to make up ground, Raanta appeared in just two games since then before starting against the Kings on Friday. He was rusty, naturally, but was emotionally shaken and questioning his readiness after the overtime loss.
Vigneault reaffirmed his confidence in Raanta, 26, on Saturday. Did you expect anything else? And Raanta should be able to rebound. But what if he cannot?
The Rangers like 6-5 goaltender Magnus Hellberg, 24, who is eighth in the AHL in goals-against-average at 2.40. But the only reason to summon the Swede from Hartford would be to send Raanta to the Wolf Pack for a short stint to play and restore his confidence.
Hellberg is 17-13-2, with three shutouts, after a slow start. Problem: Hellberg has played in just two NHL games, 12 minutes for Nashville in 2013-14 (allowing one goal) and 20 minutes for the Blueshirts on Dec. 20, when he relieved Lundqvist for the third period while Raanta was hurt, and surrendered two goals against Washington on six shots.
The prevailing school of thought has to be wait-and-hope with Raanta, who is 24-13-7 in 52 NHL games (44 starts), with a 2.44 GAA and .910 save percentage. There are 10 divisional matchups in the final 26 games, and Vigneault and goaltending coach Benoit Allaire have a blueprint for the rotation.
Raanta’s next start could be in Toronto on Thursday, in the second game of a back-to-back. If he rebounds, there’s another opportunity, on the road against non-conference opponents St. Louis or Dallas on the 25th and 27th, just before the trade deadline on Feb. 29.
Obviously, the Rangers will go as far as Lundqvist can take them. But if Raanta can’t help grab some points and give Lundqvist a breather in the next few weeks, Vigneault has another goaltending decision to make.