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Once again, Rangers' season rests on Henrik Lundqvist's shoulders

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist looks on as a

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist looks on as a shot from the Vancouver Canucks goes past him during the first period of a preseason game. (Sept. 26, 2013) Credit: AP

WASHINGTON - So, as it has been since the 2006-07 season, when he played 70 games as a 24-year-old goaltender (he turned 25 in March 2007), a successful season for the Rangers again will depend on the play of Henrik Lundqvist.

With veteran backup Martin Biron waived and debating whether to report to the AHL or retire, the burden rests squarely on Lundqvist, who was 1-3 with an uncharacteristic .887 save percentage and a 4.21 goals-against average entering Wednesday night's game against the Capitals.

In 2011-12, the last full 82-game regular season, Biron appeared in 21 games, providing Lundqvist with an occasional breather. Now, Cam Talbot, summoned from Hartford, where he has played well, is nonetheless an untested NHL backup and the Rangers have no one else ready in the system.

As a result, Lundqvist is expected to start in net for the next five games, with road games against the Devils on Saturday, the Flyers next Thursday and the Red Wings next Saturday; the home opener against Montreal at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 28, and even though it is a back-to-back scenario, against the Islanders in a division matchup on Oct. 29.

Talbot, who was 3-0 with the Wolf Pack this season and 25-28-1 with a .918 save percentage and a 2.63 GAA last year, might not make his first start until the Rangers host Buffalo on Oct. 31, and even that could change, depending on how Lundqvist feels before then.

But coach Alain Vigneault and the front office presumably want to see how Talbot, 26, fares under fire at some point to determine whether he should stick, or whether the Rangers need to explore signing a more experienced netminder. At some point before then, Talbot could be sent to Hartford to get some game action while the Rangers have off days.

Lundqvist, a Vezina Trophy winner in 2012 and a finalist five times, scoffs at pressure, insisting that he always wants to play. That is not hyperbole. Former coach John Tortorella called Lundqvist one of the most prepared and competitive athletes he's known.

But there are wrinkles this season: Lundqvist will surely be the No. 1 goaltender on Team Sweden for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in February, which won't provide him any break from the stresses of the NHL.

And Lundqvist appears disappointed that he has not been signed to a contract extension. Before the Rangers left for Phoenix and the season-opening western road trip, he said he would no longer discuss the issue, and would let his agent and the Rangers handle it.

But it has to be in the back of his mind, if not now, by December.

Lundqvist and the Rangers do have an early respite because the rest of the October games are fairly spread out, and teams in the new Metropolitan Division, except for the 5-1 Penguins, are off to sluggish starts.

Entering Wednesday night, none of the other clubs had more than two wins: Carolina was 2-2-3; the Islanders 2-2-2; Columbus 2-3, New Jersey 0-3-3, Philadelphia 1-6.

Meanwhile, the Rangers hope to have Carl Hagelin (offseason shoulder surgery) back for the Islanders game, and Rick Nash (concussion) healthy at some point. Hagelin has been cleared for contact in practice starting Thursday. And Vigneault and president and general manager Glen Sather appear willing to demote, bench or trade players not meeting expectations.

But not Lundqvist. The team is in his hands again.

New York Sports