The ultimate truism in professional sports is that it is not a meritocracy.
It is a lesson that the New York Rangers are currently learning.
“I love Hank but I love the team more,” Alain Vigneault said when asked about his rationale to start Antti Raantain goal over Henrik Lundqvist for the third straight game.“(Antti) is definitely playing well and deserves to play. Hank, like all our players (has) a team-first attitude. Right now there is no doubt that Antti is playing real well and deserves to play.”
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Indeed, Raanta did play well in the Rangers’ 2-1 and 1-0 wins over the Jets and Blackhawks, respectively. He stopped 40 of 41 shots in the two games, including making five stops on five power plays against and one short-handed save.For the season, Raanta is 7-1-0 with a .939 save percentage and 1.83 goals against in 10 games, having started nine.
“It doesn’t matter who plays [in goal]. We play the same way,” Mats Zuccarello told theNew York Postin Chicago Friday. “We all know what [Lundqvist] brings the team, but [Raanta] is playing well.”
Still, there is a fundamental question that is being asked by reporters and a vocal percentage of fans on social media website. That is, how can sitting Lundqvist be justified?
Lundqvist has been the foundation of this, the Rangers’ Golden Era, almost since the NHL re-opened its doors following the 2004-05 lockout. The numbers speak for themselves.
Entering the 2016-17 season, Lundqvist was 374-229-72-59 with a 2.28 GAA and .921 save percentage, along with 59 shutouts. Essentially, if he was not the pre-eminent goalie of his generation—an argument can be made for Montreal’s Carey Price—Lundqvist was no lower than fifth in the list of top-five netminders.
That has not been the case this season, despite the Rangers’ 19-9-1 mark through 29 games. Lundqvist has compiled a 12-8-0-1 mark with a .912 save percentage, 2.55 goals against and one shutout. Even more a concern is Lundqvist’s .902 save percentage and 3.05 GAA in his last eight games.
“In the past, I had opportunities to play [through] ups and downs,” Lundqvist said after Sunday’s morning skate, according toThe Post. “I just play and get into a nice flow. It’s a little different now. You play a couple and you sit out, so it’s a different approach.
“I like to play. A lot of times that’s how I get into a nice rhythm. It’s hard to argue when Antti is playing that well. I understand. It’s about what’s best for the team right now. It’s not about me. I just need to keep my focus on what I can control right now, and that’s my own game.”
So, for now, Lundqvist won’t take his accustomed crease. Rather, he will work with goaltending coach Benoit Allaire on the technical aspects of his trade until Vigneault calls on him.
And with nine games left this month, the odds are great that Lundqvist will play before the calendar year comes to an end.
Vigneault hinted as much prior to the win over the Blackhawks.
“I think everybody knows that Hank’s the guy. Hank’s our No. 1, but I think at this time, Antti [Raanta]’s game is just a little bit better than Hank and we need to win hockey games,” Vigneault told reporters, according toThe Post.
“It’s a body of work,” Vigneault later added. “He’s been the Rangers’ best player for quite some time, and he’s going to continue to be. At this time, Antti is just a little bit better right now.”