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Hartnett: Getting Lundqvist Right Should Be Rangers' Top Priority

By Sean Hartnett
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When a backup goaltender is riding a hot streak, it's understandable why his head coach would be tempted to squeeze everything out of him.

The Rangers' Antti Raanta has been lights out of late and Alain Vigneault has rewarded him with three consecutive starts.

Raanta responded to Vigneault's belief on Sunday by recording his second consecutive shutout, as the Rangers defeated the Devils 5-0. He improved to 8-1 with a 1.65 goals-against average and a .943 save percentage. His stellar performances has fans asking if there is a goaltending controversy brewing and how should Vigneault handle the situation.

Following Sunday's victory, Vigneault stated that he knows who will start Tuesday's home meeting with the Chicago Blackhawks, though he added he had not yet spoken with his goaltenders. The Rangers have a day off scheduled for Monday, so it's likely we won't know who starts until Tuesday's morning skate.

It's important to remember that all coaches have a shelf life and they are naturally geared towards self-preservation. Winning is the bottom line in their own thought process and in how they are judged by their employer. Right now, Vigneault is sticking with Raanta because he believes his backup -- not franchise goalie Henrik Lundqvist -- gives the Rangers the strongest chance to win over the short term.

"Right now, there's no doubt that Antti's played real well and deserves to play," Vigneault said before Sunday's game. "I love Hank, but I love the team more. Right now, Antti is on top of his game. This is about the team."

But the long term is what is ultimately at stake here and that's what's most important. The Rangers can't afford to mismanage Lundqvist by forcing him to ride the bench for as long as Raanta keeps up his hot play. For 12 seasons, Lundqvist has been the Blueshirts' unquestioned No. 1 goaltender. He has always been mentally geared toward carrying the weight of the franchise on his back.

When Lundqvist agreed to a seven-year, $59.5 million extenison in December 2013, former general manager and current team president Glen Sather stated as such at a press conference announcing the contract.

"It's up to you, Henry," Sather said at the time. "Just carry us on your shoulders."

Lundqvist has never been in this position before. The more infrequent his apperances become, the less chance he has of forming the kind of rhythm a starter needs. Through 21 games, he is 12-8-1 with a 2.55 GAA and a .912 save percentage.

"You don't want to overanalyze things when you sit out," Lundqvist said. "There's a few things, yeah, I need to be a little bit better. My game's been pretty good for a lot of games as well. I think it's time to just work hard. I said that after last game and nothing changes. I've always had opportunities in the past to play ups and downs -- I just play and get in a nice flow. It's a little different now. You play a couple, you sit out. Obviously, it's a different approach. There's no excuses. You need to be on top of it and earn your minutes."

Looking over his shoulder or playing second fiddle, these things are foreign to Lundqvist. What he needs right now is faith from Vigneault, and you know what? There shouldn't be any question who should be the starting goaltender given what Lundqvist has accomplished for this organization, and Vigneault should draw a line under it without reservation.

Lundqvist has typically been a slow starter, but every season he's found his best game in time for the playoffs. Prior to this season, Lundqvist has played at or above a .920 save percentage clip for seven consecutive years. Over that stretch, only Cory Schneider, Tuukka Rask and Carey Price have bettered Lundqvist's .922 save percentage.

There's no reason to play with the psyche of a franchise netminder. Raanta might be the hot goalie at the moment, but regaining Lundqvist's sharpness should be the top priority. Vigneault has to give Lundqvist every chance to dig his way out of his subpar start so he can re-establish his top game. Otherwise, he could be creating a messy situation that could have been easily avoided.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey

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