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Blueshirts' Backstops are Catching Fire

Red-Hot Georgiev Passes Baton Back to Lundqvist in L.A.

by Michael Obernauer

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- There were 12 different Rangers on the scoresheet in their most recent game, Sunday night's rout of the Golden Knights, five different goal-scorers from three different lines and both power-play units. All six defensemen had points, 14 players finished with a plus rating. This was a team-wide win, no question, but as a team, the Rangers knew they owed it to their goaltender for keeping them in the game early so they had a chance to run away with it late.

"You need a good goalie to win games in this League," Brendan Lemieux was saying, "and we've got two right now."

One of those is Henrik Lundqvist, who will make his return to the nets on Tuesday night in Los Angeles for his 875th regular-season appearance for the Blueshirts, after he and the Rangers made the decision to sit him out for his most recent scheduled start, on Friday, in order to let a minor flare-up in his back settle down. Part of the calculus of that decision was an abundance of caution with the No. 1 goaltender coupled with the fact that the backup happens to be probably the hottest goaltender in the National Hockey League right now.

The Rangers have played eight games since their Nov. 23 comeback from four goals down at the Bell Centre, with each goaltender starting four. The team's goals-against per game of 1.88 is the lowest in the Eastern Conference during that span, second-lowest in the NHL behind Winnipeg, and they are 5-2-1 in the games.

Alexandar Georgiev is coming off three straight starts in a four-night span in three cities. His most recent effort was a 38-save goose egg on the Golden Knights, just the third goaltender ever to go into the "nightclub" that is a Vegas home game, to borrow Georgiev's own description, and shut the home team out. It was his second clean sheet of the season, and they came eight days apart, a 4-0 win in New Jersey last Saturday followed by Sunday's 5-0 runaway from the Knights.

In those four games, Georgiev allowed four goals and stopped 147 of 151 shots, a percentage of .974. Which is why it was understandable for David Quinn to be asked on Monday whether he considered turning back to Georgiev against the Kings at the second stop of this four-game West Coast trip, and riding the hot hand as far down the road as he could -- as he did with Lundqvist in the second half of November.

The short answer? No. "You've got to continuously think big-picture here," the Head Coach said after his Blueshirts practiced in the Golden State. "Both these guys have had such good seasons so far, and Georgie has played four (out of five). And Hank has played very well this year. Hank was going to play a couple games ago and obviously had a little bit of an issue, but now he's ready to go (Tuesday)."

"Also," Lundqvist added about his goaltending partner, "the way Georgie's been playing, it made total sense for him to play (Sunday). Outstanding job."

The way Georgiev has been playing the past week can reasonably be traced back to what happened the week before. Georgiev was standing in his crease at the Bell Centre in Montreal staring at a 4-0 deficit against the Canadiens, when all of a sudden, some switch somewhere seemed to flip. Georgiev stopped 22 of the last 23 shots he saw that night while his teammates ran off six of the next seven goals to win the game, and ever since then it's been lights-out from the 23-year-old netminder.

Some of his saves will be filed on the 2019-20 highlight reels -- just ask Oliver Bjorkstrand and Max Pacioretty, who together account for 19 of those shots the past week and none of the goals -- right next to some of Lundqvist's outings, like his 45-save swindling in Carolina last month. But for Georgiev, if any of the granular details of playing the game actually did change along with that turnaround in Montreal, it would be news to him.

"Mentally the last few games have been pretty good for me, I've been able to just shut my mind down and just play the game," he said on Monday. "I'm playing the same game, just maybe got a little boost from winning a huge game coming back from 4-nothing. Otherwise, it's been the same."

"Throughout the year, two goalies, you try to push each other," said Lundqvist. "I know I have to perform well if I want to play games. This week's been incredible for Georgie, the way he's been playing and helping this team to win, and that's the most important thing, more than anything."

Part of what contributes to Georgiev's success, and his ability to collect himself in a situation like the Montreal game, is an attribute that all goaltenders at the NHL level possess to some degree, and all want more of: The ability to stop thinking about a goal almost as soon as it has gone in. "It's an important part of being a goalie," Georgiev said, and it's an ability that his parents helped him hone as a child with the curious, but intriguing, approach of teaming him with lesser players.

"When I was a kid growing up I used to play for not the strongest teams," Georgiev said. "So it would be a few goals here and there, and it would be important to just be ready to play a full game. That's definitely helped me.

"My parents -- I had chances when I was growing up to play for strong teams, but they thought it would be the best for me to play for, let's say, maybe middle teams, so you get a lot of shots and lots of scoring chances."

It was certainly the case that Georgiev saw plenty of scoring chances early in Sunday's game, before they tapered off from there -- Quinn and his staff counted 12 scoring chances for Vegas in the opening 20 minutes, then nine in the final 40; the Knights had just six shots on goal in the third. "He gave us a chance in the first period," Quinn said. "They completely control the game, and I'm sure it was very demoralizing from their end of it when they played as well as they did and we struggled, and they're down 2-nothing."

On Tuesday night it'll be Lundqvist's turn again when the Rangers face the Kings, his first start since Dec. 2 as he looks to grab points for the fifth time in his last seven games. He is 3-2-1 in his last six, with a .920 save percentage.

"I'm looking forward to having him in net," Quinn said about Lundqvist, though as Lemieux suggested, the Rangers have two players it applies to.

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