ST. LOUIS — Rangers coach Alain Vigneault has said he intends to play rookie goaltender Alexandar Georgiev a lot down the stretch because the organization needs to make a decision on whether it believes the 22-year-old can be trusted to be Henrik Lundqvist’s backup next season. So Vigneault gave Georgiev, a winner in two straight starts, his third consecutive start Saturday night when the Rangers visited the Blues.
In Vigneault’s eyes, Georgiev has showed the Rangers quite a bit in his six appearances before Saturday night. The Bulgaria-born, Russia-raised goaltender took a 3-2 record, with a 2.75 goals against average and .929 save percentage into the game. His performance in the 4-3 overtime win Wednesday over the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he had to make a save on a penalty shot by Evgeni Malkin with 10.7 seconds left in regulation, left a huge impression on the coach.
“Last game was a big test for him, I felt,’’ Vigneault said of Georgiev. “He gave up that third goal [to former Ranger Carl Hagelin], which was obviously a goal he would like to have back, [but] we were able to come back. It didn’t seem to rattle him. He stopped Malkin on that penalty shot, made some big saves in overtime, so, like I mentioned, you can tell that he’s a ‘battler.’ ’’
With 10 games to go after Saturday, Vigneault was asked whether the Rangers would have enough time to get the information they need on Georgiev to make a decision on whether to let current backup Ondrej Pavelec leave as a free agent at the end of the season.
“You know, I think this will give us an indication, not just the potential, but the mental makeup,’’ Vigneault said of Georgiev’s end-of-the-season audition. “There’s nothing set in stone. But it will go a long way to us having a real positive opinion on his play, if he does well. And so far, every game that we’ve put him in he’s done well.’’
Georgiev, an undrafted free agent the Rangers signed last summer, has impressed his teammates with his calm demeanor. Nothing in his brief time with the Rangers has seemed to rattle him.
“He’s a pretty calm kid,’’ Lundqvist said recently of Georgiev. “Technically, he’s very good. A lot of these kids coming up now, they’ve grown up with the technique; they know it from the age of 8, probably. For me, it was different. I had to learn a lot of these things when I was 19, 20 years old. It’s just different. But you can see the technique — he’s very good. Fast on his feet. And he works hard.’’
Georgiev, who was born in Bulgaria but moved to Moscow when he was about one year old, said his parents had the goal of him playing in the NHL as soon as he started to play hockey. To that end, he learned English in Moscow because his parents figured he’d need it in order to get to the NHL.
“So, this whole hockey thing was like a project, from five years old, when I started,’’ he said recently. “There wasn’t anything like, ‘Yeah, you play and enjoy the game and see what happens.’ From five years old, they expected me to be an NHL goalie.’’
Called up from Hartford a little more than a month ago, when Pavelec suffered a knee injury, Georgiev made 38 saves in his NHL debut, a 3-1 loss at Montreal on Feb. 22. He made 35 saves for his first NHL win on Mar. 3 in Edmonton. He allowed that the shooters are more skilled at this level than in the AHL, but he adjusted to the speed of the game quickly.
“I feel like it’s been good,’’ he said of his play in the NHL. “I’ve been playing confident, the guys help me a lot. It wasn’t much different from the hockey I’ve been playing before that. You’re just playing the same game.’’