CHICAGO — Henrik Lundqvist, who has struggled in the last few weeks, got a breather Friday night.
It was not the kind of break the 34-year-old goaltender sought — a rare assignment on the bench for back-to-back games — but the Rangers’ No. 1 netminder said he will use the decision as a way to rebound from a stretch in which his game hasn’t been to his standards.
“I don’t expect to play if I don’t play well,” Lundqvist said Friday at United Center, where backup Antti Raanta, who made 17 saves in a 2-1 victory in Winnipeg on Thursday night, started against the Blackhawks and earned a 1-0 overtime victory.
“You need to put pressure on yourself to perform and to do well. It’s a competitive league and Antti’s a great goalie. You try to use every angle of this to motivate yourself to work harder and to get to the level where you need to be. Again, I don’t think I’m that far off, but there’s definitely a few things I can do better.”
Coach Alain Vigneault’s reasoning? “I think everybody knows that Hank’s the guy, but at this time, Antti’s game is just a little better than Hank’s,” he said. “We need to win hockey games, and Antti played real well [Thursday] and he wasn’t that busy. This is a familiar spot for him, so we just felt it was the right thing to do. I’ve got to think he’ll be highly motivated.”
Raanta, who played two seasons with the Blackhawks, is 6-1-0 with a 2.05 GAA and a .932 save percentage. Lundqvist is 12-8-1 with a 2.55 goals-against-average and .912 save percentage.
It was the first time since Raanta was acquired in June 2015 that he has started back-to-back games when Lundqvist was healthy. As the Blackhawks’ backup, Raanta was 14-0-3 with a 1.59 GAA and .942 save percentage on home ice.
Vigneault said Lundqvist wasn’t happy when he learned of the decision after the Winnipeg game, but the goalie, who is 3-4-1 with a 3.05 goals-against average and .902 save percentage in his past eight starts, acknowledged that the move was warranted. “I understand,” Lundqvist said, “but at the same time, you want to play. It’s up to me to try to raise my level, and the only thing I can do right now is work harder in practice and try to prepare for my next start, whenever that is.”
The Rangers host the Devils in a Metropolitan Division game tomorrow. Vigneault wouldn’t commit to his starter, but it will be shocking if Lundqvist isn’t between the pipes.
“Right now, I think it’s important not to overthink it or overanalyze this,” Lundqvist said. “It’s important sometimes to take a step back and get a good look of where you are and what you need to do. You do what’s best for the team, and Antti’s playing well.”
Lundqvist denied that the change had anything to do with Vigneault’s declaration before the season that he would play fewer games — between 55 and 60 — than he had in the past to stay fresher for the end of the season. “I knew coming into the season I would play a little less,” said Lundqvist, who played 65 games last season and at least 62 in eight of the previous nine seasons. “At the same time, you need to earn your minutes.”
Vesey returns. Jimmy Vesey, who sat out Thursday night’s game — his first missed game of his rookie season — with an upper-body injury, was back and skating on a line with Brandon Pirri and Nicklas Jensen. “I’m feeling a lot better,” he said.