Defense has let Lundqvist down
Henrik Lundqvist, the New York Rangers’ franchise goaltender, has been extremely reliable during his 12-year career. This season, however, has been a mess.
In 41 games through Friday night, Lundqvist, 34, had a 2.70 goals against average and a .911 save percentage, career worsts for each. He was on pace to post three shutouts, which would be his fewest in a non-strike-shortened season since 2009-10 (four).
Not all of it is his fault — the Rangers’ defense has let him down.
During each of the past four seasons, the Rangers allowed an average shot distance of at least 30.5 feet; this year opponents are firing the puck about 21/2 feet closer (average distance of 27.9 feet). Listen to any NHL coach or player talk about how he can increase his team’s scoring and you undoubtedly hear him say some variation of “crash the net,” so it is no wonder teams are having more success against Lundqvist than in years past.
“The game is changing a little bit, the way we are giving up scoring chances now compared to maybe a few years ago,” Lundqvist told reporters after the game against the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday night. “I think I need to adjust my game a little bit, a little bit more on my toes, a little bit more aggressive, and I think it is helping my game. It’s a big thing, too, when you see the shot the whole way, how you can react to it.
“That was something we have been talking about for the last few days: try to box out more and try to block the shot and give me the shot. It makes a big difference when you can read the shot from the get go.”
Defensive miscues don’t help, either. The Rangers rank fourth in the league in giveaways and, while not a direct result, certainly add to Lundqvist having to deal with a greater frequency of rush shots — any shot taken within four seconds of uninterrupted game time of any event occurring in the defensive zone or within four seconds of uninterrupted game time of any giveaway or takeaway — at even strength and on the penalty kill. The former (3.2 per 60 minutes) is the highest on record for Lundqvist since 2007-08, the first season data is available.
You never want a player to be injured, but Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi seeing reduced ice time and missing Thursday’s game against the Nashville Predators could be a blessing in disguise. With him on the ice, New York was allowing 63 shot attempts per 60 minutes at even strength, compared with just 54 per 60 when he was relegated to the bench. Ryan McDonagh will get the biggest boost, especially offensively: the team scores 3.7 goals per 60 minutes when McDonagh skates without Girardi, nearly double (1.9) the output when Coach Alain Vigneault puts them together. Among defensive pairs that played at least 500 even-strength minutes together this season, only one put a lower percentage of shots in their team’s favor than Girardi and McDonagh (44.5 percent).
McDonagh, meanwhile, is close to 50 percent when skating with Brady Skjei (49.5 percent) or Nick Holden (49.5 percent) and is at his best in this category when paired with Kevin Klein (53.6 percent).
That doesn’t mean Lundqvist is without blame for his poor performance. He said in January his play was “embarrassing, frustrating and disappointing,” but it is clear the players in front of him can make it a lot easier for him to do his job.
During Lundqvist’s first 32 games, the Rangers allowed 7.3 high-danger chances — those in the slot or near the crease — per 60 even-strength minutes, leading to a .902 save percentage for Lundqvist. Over his past nine games, where Lundqvist has gone 7-1-0 with a .938 save percentage and a shutout, the high-danger chances against have been cut by more than half (3.4 per 60).
“We had an all-star break combined with our bye week a few weeks before and we recharged there,” McDonagh said after the win against the Nashville Predators. “Now we’ve got some confidence going at home and we’ve played some good games on the road, so we have to continue that.”
The Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist has career worsts in goals against average and save percentage, due in part to how close opposing shooters are getting.