The intrigue continues, and the answer won’t be known publicly until around 10:30 Tuesday morning, when the Rangers gather for a morning skate at Madison Square Garden.
Will Antti Raanta, named the NHL’s second star of the week for his three-win, two-shutout cameo, make his fourth straight start Tuesday night, or will Henrik Lundqvist return against the Blackhawks?
There’s an argument to be made for each: Continue to ride the hot hand or get the team’s No. 1 goaltender back in the net at home now.
In his postgame remarks Sunday, after the 5-0 defeat of the Devils, coach Alain Vigneault said he had made a decision but declined to divulge it because he had not told the goalies.
Vigneault has said the recent decisions have been based on what’s best for the team, not Lundqvist’s mindset, and are on a game-to-game basis. But make no mistake: He always consults with goaltending coach Benoit Allaire on the readiness of the pair and weighs the schedule.
After the Blackhawks visit, the Rangers (20-9-1) have three games in four nights, in Dallas on Thursday, in Nashville on Saturday and home against the Devils Sunday. No matter who plays Tuesday, both goalies will play in that stretch.
Raanta certainly has found his rhythm. He is the first Ranger with consecutive regular-season shutouts since March 17-19, 2003, when Mike Dunham blanked the Islanders and Sabres. Lundqvist had back-to-back shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of the 2013 first-round Stanley Cup series against the Capitals.
Raanta made timely saves in the last three games but faced only 62 shots against the Devils, Winnipeg and Chicago as the Rangers’ defense has tightened. Lundqvist faced 94 shots in his last three starts against the Islanders, Carolina and Buffalo. A more cohesive defense would help his cause.
Lundqvist, who never has missed four consecutive Rangers games when healthy, repeatedly has said that more practices will smooth the small cracks in his game, but players and coaches concede it is impossible to replicate game conditions. Lundqvist (12-8-1) isn’t coming off an injury, however, and ramped up his offseason training before the World Cup of Hockey in September. He’s not far off, and is familiar with Tuesday’s opponent.
He has faced the Blackhawks 10 times and is 6-2-2, with a 2.19 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. In eight of those games, he allowed two goals or fewer.
When the Rangers were prepping to face Chicago last Friday, the news came at the morning skate at United Center, when Lundqvist practiced with a few extras. On Tuesday, the scene shifts to the Garden.