Until recently, the best story from what has been an otherwise good season for the New York Rangers was that Henrik Lundqvist wasn't the story. His team, which in the past has needed him to carry it through parts of the season, was scoring plenty of goals, and his defense was doing enough to give him time to find his game.
Time is up.
The Rangers have lost two straight games, including a 5-4 defeat to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday in which Lundqvist surrendered three goals and the lead in a 62-second span in the third period. In that game, Lundqvist, who allowed five goals on 22 shots, came on in relief of Antti Raanta at the start of the second period. Raanta sustained a lower-body injury and is out at least a week.
With five games remaining before the All-Star break, which runs from Jan. 27-30, the Rangers hold the first wild-card spot into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference, but their margin of error is shrinking. They need Lundqvist to be better, more consistent. They need him to be their best player again.
Now that Raanta is likely out likely through the All-Star break, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault has little choice but to play Lundqvist in the next five games, starting against the Dallas Stars at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; SN, SN1, TVA Sports, MSG, FS-SW+, NHL.TV). The Rangers called up Magnus Hellberg from Hartford of the American Hockey League to serve as the backup. Hellberg, 25, has two NHL appearances, totaling 32 minutes.
It's Lundqvist's time to change his season and get the Rangers back in the right direction.
"Hank has played some real great hockey for us in some games, and some other games he hasn't been as consistent," Vigneault said. "That's the issue right now, but the body of work that he's had throughout his career tells us that he's going to find the answer and become the goaltender that we know."
The Rangers need Lundqvist to become that goaltender because they are starting to limp. In their first five games of January, they are 2-3-0, and have allowed 19 goals -- all by Lundqvist. Playing in the tough Metropolitan Division, the Rangers have dropped into a wild-card position despite being tied for sixth in the League standings with 57 points in 44 games prior to games on Monday.
Lundqvist's .907 save percentage and 2.72 goals-against average this season -- including an .861 save percentage and 4.10 GAA in the past five games -- is bruising his career stat line and his team.
The problem is too often lately, Lundqvist has allowed the dreaded third goal and, sometimes, the fourth or fifth goal, scores he knows he can't give up. The Rangers have been able to overcome his struggles most of the time because they are leading the NHL with 3.41 goals per game. But Lundqvist's issues are being compounded by a defensive unit that's having trouble picking up coverage and making the right reads.
Case in point came Friday in a 4-2 loss against the Toronto Maple Leafs at home. William Nylander's uncontested wrist shot from the right circle 4:49 into the first period was the first score of the game, but it was, in a sense, the backbreaker, because it should have never gone in.
Nylander got open in the circle because the forwards were all gathered on the opposite side and defenseman Ryan McDonagh couldn't stop Nazem Kadri's pass with a poke check. McDonagh then couldn't get across to block the shot either. But that's where Lundqvist has to step up.
Lundqvist said he was reading high, but Nylander shot low, through his five-hole. The Rangers never recovered.
James van Riemsdyk scored a power-play goal later in the first period, a goal that had as much to do with Dan Girardi being unable to stop Mitchell Marner's pass as much as it did with Lundqvist challenging and eventually leaving enough space between his legs for van Riemsdyk.
Lundqvist stopped Zach Hyman's shorthanded breakaway in the second period, with Toronto leading 2-1, but Connor Brown scored the game-winner less than five minutes later on a shot that deflected in off of McDonagh, a bad break that compounded bad breakdowns.
"A lot of it is just making the right play at the right time and, for me personally, coming up with the save at the right time because it can change the momentum of the game so fast," Lundqvist said.
In years past, Lundqvist would have gotten the start the next night, despite his career struggles at Bell Centre. But Vigneault has been trying to keep Lundqvist (29 starts this season) in the 55-start range to keep him fresher for the stretch run and playoffs.
So Vigneault started Raanta in Montreal, even though Lundqvist is 3-0-0 with a .935 save percentage in the second game of a back-to-back after he started the first. Raanta got hurt in the first period, so Lundqvist had to play.
It's hard to determine how much faulty defense had to do with those goals, but the fact is the Rangers needed Lundqvist to come up with a big save and he didn't. That's happened more often than Lundqvist and the Rangers would want this season.
"Goaltending can be the difference in a game by making that timely save," Vigneault said. "That goes a lot into wins and losses."
And goalies will tell you that when they're feeling good the puck finds them and when they're not they can't find the puck. Lundqvist isn't feeling good about his game. His body language says that as much as his stat line.
But now he likely has a chance for an uninterrupted five-game stretch, no looking over his shoulder, to turn his season around.