For the Rangers, the silver lining in the loss of capable backup goaltender Antti Raanta and Saturday night’s three-goals-in-62-seconds implosion that rocked Bell Centre and the Rangers’ psyche is this:
Henrik Lundqvist, who came in cold to open the second period after Raanta suffered a lower-body injury, will have plenty of ice time to correct the flaws in his reads, find his balance and, perhaps most important, regain his confidence.
“I’m just trying really hard to be positive right now,” Lundqvist said after the Rangers’ 5-4 loss to the Canadiens, conceding that he isn’t very good in relief.
Without a sharper Lundqvist and a better effort from the defense — now minus concussed Marc Staal — it won’t matter if the Rangers (5-5 in the last 10) continue to average more than three goals a game. They need a mindset reset or the losses will continue.
The Rangers have declined to provide any details on Raanta and Staal, who already has missed four games.
The challenge is clear. Coach Alain Vigneault’s preseason “ideal world” of having the 34-year-old Lundqvist play fewer games (55 to 60) in order to be fresher for a postseason run has gone sideways. With 38 games left, guess who’s front and center: The proud, competitive Swede (18-11-1, 2.72 goals-against average, .907 save percentage) could be steadied by the responsibility and the start-after-start rhythm, which cannot be duplicated in practice.
He has fought through slumps before, and the schedule is favorable. After Jan. 22-23, there is only one back-to-back set, Feb. 25-26.
“Lundqvist is an unbelievable goaltender,” Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty said. “It’s not like he goes in and we’re doing jumping jacks to celebrate on the bench. But he had played Friday, so we had to make sure we made it hard on him, took away his eyes and his confidence.”
And remember, the Blueshirts are coming off a surprisingly top-shelf first half despite missing three top-nine forwards — center Mika Zibanejad and wingers Pavel Buchnevich and Rick Nash — because of injury for a total of 69 games.
In a sign that Zibanejad’s return is imminent, forward Marek Hrivik, who had two assists in 16 games on the fourth line before becoming a healthy scratch for the last two games, was placed on waivers. If he clears, he will be assigned to Hartford.
The team was off Sunday and will regroup for practice Monday, presumably with a call-up from the AHL for a backup to Lundqvist. Magnus Hellberg and Brandon Halverson are the minor-league options, but a more experienced goalkeeper might be obtained if Raanta (10-4, 2.23, .923) is gone long-term.
Staal’s concussion — the third of his career — also is troubling. There is no spare defenseman on the roster, and Hartford’s Steven Kampfer, 28, reacquired in the Dylan McIlrath trade with Florida, has the most NHL experience.
Tuesday night’s home game against the Dallas Stars will be a measuring stick. The Rangers have lost two in a row for only the second time this season, but twice since Dec. 20-23. A strong performance from Lundqvist seems critical.