De­fense has let Lundqvist down

The Washington Post Sunday - - HOCKEY - BY NEIL GREEN­BERG neil.green­berg@wash­post.com

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.”

BRUCE BEN­NETT/GETTY IMAGES

The Rangers’ Hen­rik Lundqvist has ca­reer worsts in goals against av­er­age and save per­cent­age, due in part to how close op­pos­ing shoot­ers are get­ting.

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