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Henrik Lundqvist’s early exits have more to do with Rangers

New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) blocks

New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) blocks a shot against the Nashville Predators in the second period of a game Monday, Dec. 28, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. Credit: AP / Mark Humphrey

TAMPA, Fla. – Hank has been yanked in four of his past 12 starts and two of his past three.

That is a shocking number for a future Hall of Fame goaltender, but the fact that Henrik Lundqvist keeps getting the starting nod illustrates that his early exits say more about the way the Rangers have been playing lately than it does about Lundqvist.

Both coach Alain Vigneault and Lundqvist said after practice Tuesday that there is a bigger picture involved for a team that entering Wednesday night’s game against the Lightning had allowed five or more goals in six of its previous eight games.

“I think Hank is real close to getting his game back to where it was when he was ‘Hank,’ one of the best goaltenders in the league,” Vigneault said. “What will help him, I think, get his game is our top foot soldiers helping him out and playing a little bit better.

“There is no doubt that I believe he can be better. There’s no doubt I believe a lot of our players can be better.”

Lundqvist believes he can be better, too, but he made it clear Tuesday that he is not entirely dissatisfied with his recent play despite all of the early exits.

How does he remain confident?

“It’s a challenge,” he said. “You need to analyze the game the right way, do good things and feel like you’re playing a certain way. As a goalie you’re not always getting the result you want, but you have to stick to your game plan and not change too much.

“There have been stretches where you feel like you’re not playing well enough but now I feel like I’m doing good things. It’s just not paying off the way I want — the way we want.”

The Rangers’ third-period meltdown against the Predators in a 5-3 loss Monday was illustrative of their recent problems. Lundqvist left after allowing the third of three goals in that period, at which point the Preds led, 5-1.

“A lot of games I’ve been playing well and there’s been like three minutes where everything just breaks down and there’s a lot of big opportunities for a couple of minutes and we get hurt and the game gets away from us,” he said. “So should I just focus on that, or on the 80 percent, 85 percent of the game where I’ve been doing a lot of good things?

“As a goalie it’s important that you analyze it the right way. [Monday] I was feeling pretty good about the game. Still, I give up five goals. That’s the tough part, to stay confident in that situation.”

Lundqvist said the dynamics of getting lifted vary depending on the game and situation. “It’s always mixed emotions to leave the game,” he said. “Like [Monday] I feel really good about what I’m doing out there and then there’s a few minutes where there are a couple of different plays that are pretty tough. I look at the goals and think: What should I do differently?

“A deflection, screen, wide-open net. I don’t think any goalie is unstoppable, and if you’re on top of it, maybe you make a better read. But the way I was reading the situations I don’t know how I’d play it differently. There’s definitely stretches where you feel you should play better. But right now I feel pretty close to where I need to be.

“Sometimes the team game will help you get there, too. It’s a combination of me helping them and them helping me to reach our top level.”

Lundqvist acknowledged that often a goalie switch provides a brief spark, as it did Monday when the Rangers quickly scored two goals after Antti Raanta replaced him.

“You’re always disappointed but at the same time when something happens that quickly a change is never a bad thing,” he said. “We do answer back with two quick goals there, and I’m always going to do whatever the coach thinks is best for the team.

“But it’s been a few games over the past month now where a few minutes have really ruined it for us and it’s something we have to correct.”

Cooper: Lightning can’t worry about playoffs yet

Former Hofstra lacrosse player and current Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said his team cannot yet start worrying about a playoff chase — not with less than half the regular-season having been played.

Still, he acknowledged before Wednesday night’s game against the Rangers that it is time for the defending Eastern Conference champions to start looking like defending conference champions after an 18-15-4 start.

“Panic has not set in, but are we well aware of what we have to do? Yes,” he said. “And is there heightened energy? There better be.”

The Lightning, who advanced to the Stanley Cup Final by beating the Rangers in Game 7 of the conference final at Madison Square Garden last May, have been up and down all season.

That is in contrast to the last two teams they ousted in the spring — the Canadiens and the Rangers — coincidentally their opponents on Monday and Wednesday of this week.

“You look at, for instance, the slide Montreal had been on and they ended up beating us [Monday], but the reason they’re in the thick of things is they had such an unbelievable start,” Cooper said. “It’s very similar to the Rangers. Those two teams jumped out of the gate and could afford to slip up a little bit. We can’t.

“So whether this is the Rangers, the team we played in the conference finals last year, and the history they have, with the [Ryan] Callahan-Marty [St. Louis] trade and everything that’s gone on, you look at this and these two teams are connected in a lot of ways. And it’s really exciting to play them.

“But we can’t look at this as any more important than the Minnesota game coming up on Saturday. They’re all important to us.”

Callahan finds a home

Former Rangers captain Ryan Callahan scored a goal for the Lightning against the Canadiens Monday night, which normally would not be big news for a guy who last season scored 24 for the Lightning in the regular season.

But in this case it was news, because it was his first goal since Nov. 1. He now has five for the season.

“It weighs on you, not scoring in that long,” he said Wednesday. “It’s nice to see that first one go in. It lifts some weight off your shoulders a little bit.”

Said Cooper, “Everybody appreciates the way he plays, but he’s also somebody that’s used to getting 20 goals a year, and when those guys go through a few games without scoring it’s frustrating . . . You could tell a little bit of relief when he finally scored.”

Callahan, 30, whom the Rangers traded in March of 2014, said he still looks forward to playing the Rangers but that it no longer is as big a deal as it used to be.

He re-signed with the Lightning in June of 2014 and said he now feels at home here.

“My kids are in school here now and fully in the community,” he said. “We have a house now. This definitely feels like home. It’s been awesome. It’s matched and beat my expectations.”

McIrath skates alone

Kevin Hayes, expected to be a healthy scratch Wednesday night, did not attend the morning skate for extras here Wednesday. A team spokesman said another player is questionable for the game, meaning Hayes might be needed.

That left defenseman Dylan McIlrath to work out alone with coaches and goalies. He played 11 games in a row when Dan Girardi and/or Kevin Klein were hurt but now he is expected to be scratched for the second game in a row.

“I thought I was playing pretty good hockey, so it’s tough coming out of the lineup, but it’s an opportunity for me to just kind of work out in the gym, get stronger and just be a good teammate,” he said.

McIlrath said he is not frustrated. “I’ve just tried to approach this with an open mind,” he said. “I’m not down in the dumps, by any means.”

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