DALLAS — Alain Vigneault threw his head back and laughed when he was asked the question. “Thanks, guys!” he said mirthfully — a graceful way to end a conversation that’s actually been going on for about a month now.
The question, of course, was who starts Saturday in Nashville? Will it be Antti Raanta, who’s been spectacular this season — so much so that his play resulted in the longest benching of Henrik Lundqvist’s career?
Or will it be Lundqvist, who took a monster hit Thursday night, survived concussion protocol, and came back to blank the Stars in a gritty 27-save performance that was vastly reminiscent of the Hank that’s been missing for so much of this year.
Vigneault isn’t telling, but his silence (or laughter) is clear indication of the uncertain goalie situation the team finds itself in. No one is weeping for the Rangers, their 21-10-1 record, and their abundance of perfectly capable netminders, but there’s certainly some intrigue brewing.
“My game hasn’t changed,” Lundqvist said. “The difference is Antti has been playing so well and it was important to me to remind myself that I’ve been doing a lot of good things but there’s a few things that need to go a little bit better. Let’s not try to reinvent anything or scramble to try to find something I don’t have to. I know what I need to do. I need to really lock in mentally to make good decisions.”
Lundqvist said after Thursday’s game that he played with a sense of “desperation” — a sentiment more in line with a man playing for his starting role than the longtime face of a franchise. As if to illustrate the team’s current position, Lundqvist’s five-minute departure from the game actually made team history: Thursday was the first time two Rangers goalies have combined for a shutout.
“I expect that from Hank or Antti,” Vigneault said. “Every day we expect our goaltenders to give us a chance to win. That’s what Hank did.”
Despite Raanta’s superior numbers or the fact that, before Thursday, he had made four straight starts in the span of nine days, Vigneault has stressed that Lundqvist is still his No. 1 goalie. In 13 games, Raanta has a 1.67 goals against average, with a .941 save percentage; Lundqvist finds himself caught up in the worst season of his career, with 2.44 goals against and a .916 save percentage, though those numbers have improved recently — he’s 12-5-1 with a 2.29 GAA and a .924 save percentage in his last 18 starts.
Recent events have led to a lot of soul-searching, Lundqvist said.
“I’m just happy the way I responded,” he said. “It’s been a lot of thinking. It’s important that you just go back to your basics and it’s hard sometimes to stick to that when you’re analyzing so much. I just want to go out there and try to help the team and that was my main focus tonight . . . It felt good to be out there. When you sit out, you start to miss the game a lot.”