Philly Sports Live

What We Learned: Should the NY Rangers actually scare anyone? (Puck Daddy)

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.) Henrik Lundqvist returned to the lineup on Saturday for the first time since Feb. 2, meaning he missed more than a month and a half. On Feb. 2, the Rangers earned their 62nd point of the season in just their 48th game, which is a pretty good rate (a pace for almost 106 points for the season) but only good enough for third in the division and a tie for seventh in the conference. Losing Lundqvist was supposed to have been a disaster of near-biblical proportions. Lundqvist is  perhaps the single most important player in the league in terms of what he brings to his team every night, in the form of reliably all-time-great goaltending; the last time he was south of .920 for the season, a rate touched only 134 times in league history, Barack Obama had been in office for three months. Thus, losing him for any length of time could have proved disastrous. A month and a half might have been a death sentence. And in previous years, maybe it would have been. But Alain Vigneault has done such a good job coaching, and Cam Talbot such a good job in Lundqvist’s relief, that the Rangers instead racked up another 39 points in his absence, this time in just 25 games. It’s a pace for about 128 points over 82 games. This is an impossible accomplishment. To go 18-4-3 without one of the four or five greatest goalies of all time, especially given how good the top of the East has been this season, is remarkable. The Rangers catapulted from the middle of the East to the top of the league without Henrik Lundqvist. Not even the most indefatigable optimist could have seen this coming. A lot of this, of course, is down to the play of Cam Talbot, who proved himself probably the best backup in the league during this stretch. I often find it difficult to determine whether a No. 2 goaltender is actually good; it’s just so hard to judge. They only play once every few weeks in a lot of cases, and often against the teams that aren’t very good, the ones for which coaches think to themselves that they could put just about anyone out there and still wring at least a point from the contest. Being a backup is challenging in its own way, sure, but for Talbot to do this over more than a six-week stretch was unforeseeable. Playing 33 games in a season is not something you often ask of your backups, and you never expect their performance to surpass that of the guy in front of you. And look, the guy was .941 in 21 appearances last season, so it’s not like anyone thought he was bad, but that goes back to his competition: The Oilers twice, the Wild twice, the Islanders twice, the Leafs twice, etc. For the most part he wasn’t drawing the difficult assignments. What he’s had to deal with since the Lundqvist injury is a lot tougher; 13 of his 23 starts were against current playoff teams, and 12 were on the road. His .929 over that stretch (stopping 653 of 703) would be almost slam-dunk Vezina worthy if carried over an entire season. Looking at this chart of save percentage in all situations, it isn’t too hard to guess when Talbot took over the job: