NEW YORK, N.Y. - If someone said the New York Rangers would be without star goalie Henrik Lundqvist for more than a month during a crucial stretch, their post-season prospects might seem no better than wishful thinking.
That might have been the popular opinion, but not one shared by the defending Eastern Conference champions.
Not only are the Rangers (44-17-7) setting themselves up for perhaps another long playoff run, they have vaulted to the top of the NHL standings. And backup goalie Cam Talbot is a big reason why.
Since Lundqvist was forced out of the lineup by a vascular injury, caused when he was struck in the neck with a shot, Talbot has stepped in and carried the Rangers.
Overall, they are 15-2-3 since Lundqvist's injury. Talbot has played every game except for two at Buffalo that were started and won by 20-year-old rookie Mackenzie Skapski ? including a 2-0 victory on Saturday.
Talbot got back into the nets Sunday against Florida and made a career-high 38 saves to earn his 17th victory and extend his winning streak to four despite his teammates struggling in front of him in the second of back-to-back games.
"We know we didn't play our best game, but we are finding ways to battle through those games and come up with the big two points," Talbot said.
In his last 10 appearances, Talbot is 8-1-1 with a 1.49 goals-against average, a .951 save percentage, and two shutouts. He has allowed one goal or fewer in regulation in each of his last six appearances, and the Rangers have earned at least one point in 15 of his last 16 outings (12-1-3).
Lundqvist is moving closer to a return, having been medically cleared Tuesday to resume practicing with the team. No timetable has been set for when he will play in a game.
On Jan. 29 ??? four days before Lundqvist's most recent game ??? the Rangers were in eighth place in the East and 12 points behind the West-leading Anaheim Ducks, with whom they are now tied at 95 points.
"When Hank went down it was a big deal, but we knew what we had in Talbs," veteran defenceman Dan Girardi said. "He is a great goalie. He works hard in practice, he always stays late with the boys for extra shots. He's a real focused guy and he is a big part of our success."
Talbot was chosen Monday as the NHL's second star of last week, but among the Rangers, it is hardly an outlandish thought that the 27-year-old goalie could be the team's MVP this season.
"I wouldn't say it's a stretch," Girardi said. "He came in and did his job as a backup and gave us a chance to win every night. Ever since Hank went down, he has stepped up his game so much.
"He is a steady piece back there."
So much so that Talbot is carrying the goaltending load. Skapski's only two NHL appearances have come against the lowly Sabres. Skapski's only real exposure to the home fans at Madison Square Garden came Sunday when he was shown on the video board to acknowledge his shutout from the previous night.
He flashed a big smile and waved to the crowd from the bench.
Talbot was left to rescue the Rangers against the Panthers, who controlled play through much of New York's 2-1 victory. He made 20 saves in the second period.
"One player gave us a chance to get two points, and we were fortunate that he was on top of his game," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said.
After being signed by New York as an undrafted free agent in March 2010, Talbot is 29-12-5 with eight shutouts in 50 career games. This season he is 17-6-4 with a 2.19 GAA and five shutouts in 29 games.
"He has been playing really well for a real long time," Vigneault said. "Last year he got us some big wins, and this year ??? I think after the first three games ??? he really found his rhythm. Ever since Hank went down, he's had to step up, he's had to play more, and he certainly has fulfilled the challenge."
Talbot is earning $575,000 this season and is slated to make $1.45 million next season ??? his last before he can become an unrestricted free agent.
"No one wants to see what happened to Hank happen, but we were excited for him to get an opportunity to show what he's got on a consistent basis," defenceman Marc Staal said. "He has been very good for us as a backup, and it's his time to shine.
"You don't have to concern yourself with the way you're playing as a team in front of him. You almost take it for granted that (the goalies) have been so solid all year long. He has been very good for us, there is no lie. He deserves all the praise, all the accolades he has been getting. We have won a lot of hockey games, and he has been very consistent."