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Antti Raanta starts again as Henrik Lundqvist sits, Rick Nash close to returning

New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist sits on

New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist sits on the bench during the third period after being pulled during game 5 in a first-round NHL playoff hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Saturday, April 23, 2016. Photo Credit: AP/ Gene J. Puskar

Antti Raanta, who is riding a three-game winning streak and has played 151 minutes without allowing a goal, is back in the nets tonight for the Rangers against the Chicago Blackhawks at Madison Square Garden.

“He deserves to play,” said coach Alain Vigneault.

This will be the longest stretch of starts for Raanta, 27, since a 10-game run when he was with Chicago in December 2013.

Veteran Henrik Lundqvist, 34, the face of the franchise and its best player over the years, will be a healthy backup for the fourth straight game for the first time in his 11-year career.

“I’ve been in constant communication with Hank,” said Vigneault. “Hank is all about the team. He’s been in this game a long time. You know what? In my first year here [2013-14], this sort of happened in December, but when we were making our playoff push [to the Stanley Cup Final], I don’t remember anybody bringing up the fact that Hank had missed three games in December.”

Raanta says there’s no controversy and understands his role: He’s undoubtedly the backup for the Rangers (20-9-1). “It’s been great to get these games in a row,” the Finnish netminder said Tuesday. “But everybody knows who’s the Number One guy here. He still is.”

In the beginning of the season, Vigneault said that in “an ideal world” Lundqvist would play between 55 and 60 games, based on goaltending coach Benoit Allaire’s research into goaltenders who have success in the playoffs in the last five to 10 years.

“There’s always a big picture, we talked many times about how you’d like your goaltenders to play a certain amount of games,” Vigneault said. “But there does come a time in a season, where one guy has played real well, and he’s playing [tonight]. …There’s no doubt that with a condensed schedule, the number of games you have to play in a short amount of time, two goaltenders that can give you a chance to win is a must.”

Lundqvist, who has appeared in between 62 and 73 games in eight seasons since 2006-07, admitted that being healthy and sitting for consecutive games was a fairly new experience. He is using the time doing extra work off and on the ice, although he did not take any shots or skate on Monday, an off-day. With the schedule and travel, the Rangers haven’t had a full team practice since Dec. 7, the day after the loss to the Islanders.

In previous years, Lundqvist knew exactly when he would start and often played through slumps.

“This past week…it’s different, but you try not to look too far ahead, you just try to focus on today,” he said. “You don’t want to overreact…Can I be better? Yes. Is it terrible? I don’t think so, but Antti’s been playing really well. For a goalie, confidence is very important, you need to believe in what you’re doing, believe in things you’ve been doing for 14-15 years, the last year, even the last couple weeks, and believe you’re on the right track.”

Obviously, the past seven days also has been a departure for Raanta, who was named the NHL’s second star of the week on Monday.

For a backup, Raanta said, “knowing [ahead] that you’ll start makes it a little easier when you get up in the morning…and when you get a couple games in a row, it gets a little bit easier to get into the rhythm. But the whole team has been helping me a lot. If I can make the first save, usually they are there helping me. You don’t start thinking too much ahead of you, just get yourself prepared, and when you get wins, you get that [confident] feeling going. But I’ve felt good all year.”

Facing the Hawks (18-8-4) will be “a special night again,” he added, referring to the 1-0 overtime win at United Center four days ago. “I had been practicing and playing with those guys a couple years, we pretty much know what they’re doing. If we keep playing like the way we’ve been playing the last couple games, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”

Nash close to returning

Rick Nash, who will miss his fourth game tonight after tweaking his groin, is “very, very close” to returning, coach Alain Vigneault said Tuesday.

Nash, who had 11 goals, is expected to practice and join the team when they leave Wednesday for a two-game trip to Dallas (Thursday) and Nashville (Saturday). The big winger skated on his own Sunday and was on the ice in a red non-contact jersey for Tuesday’s morning skate.

When Nash, 32, was injured against the Islanders last Tuesday and underwent an MRI, the team estimated that he would be out about a week.

None of the other three injured Blueshirts forwards (Mika Zibanejad, broken leg), Pavel Buchnevich (back) and Matt Puempel (concussion) is as close to returning, although Puempel also was on ice in a red jersey Tuesday. Vigneault said Puempel, who was high-sticked during the Islanders game, was continuing post-concussion protocol.

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