By Sean Hartnett
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The days of starting goaltenders taking on 70-game regular season workloads are over. NHL teams are crunching the numbers to determine how heavily their No. 1 netminder should be leaned on. It's imperative for teams to find the right balance to ensure their starter is in peak condition once the playoffs roll around.
For the Rangers, the magic number for franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist falls somewhere less than 60 regular season games. Head coach Alain Vigneault stated during the preseason that the most successful teams have their starting goaltender playing in a specific range.
"It seems like the goaltenders that have won in the last few years are all between 50 and 58 games," Vigneault said on Sept. 22. "I think when I first got here, I was talking to you about keeping Hank at around 60 or something. In an ideal world, it seems now that goaltenders that have won have played a little bit less than that.
"I think this year, one of the challenges all the teams are going to have is the condensed schedule," he continued. "The schedule for every team is this league with that five-day break, it's a lot of games in a short amount of time. So you're going to need two goaltenders that can play."
Backup goaltender Antti Raanta is playing an important role for the Blueshirts by allowing Vigneault to carefully manage 34-year-old Lundqvist's appearances and by putting in some dominant performances of his own. The 27-year-old is a 4-0 with a .938 save percentage and a 2.05 goals-against average in his five appearances.
"I'm not worried at all about Antti, the way he's played for us in the past, how hard he's working during practices and the extra work he's doing with (Benoit Allaire)," Vigneault said in late October. "Our team has got a lot of confidence in him and when he comes in goal, we know he's always going to give us a chance to win."
Raanta started Sunday's game in Edmonton and earned a 38-save victory. He replicated Lundqvist's mastery by playing deep in his crease and by making a number of point-blank and quick-reflex saves. When the Rangers were outshot 14-7 and 12-8 in the second and third frames, respectively, Raanta preserved the 3-1 victory in face of an onslaught.
It seems when the most pressure is piled on Raanta, he performs better. The agile Finn is 14-1-1 with a .956 save percentage, a 1.56 GAA and three shutouts in the 16 career games in which he has made at least 30 saves. Through the first two games of the current road trip, Raanta and Lundqvist have posted a combined .973 save percentage, making 73 saves on 75 shots.
For all the talk of the Rangers' lightning-quick speed game being a key component of their 12-4 Metropolitan Division-leading start, the robust netminding of Lundqvist and Raanta has been an element that cannot be overlooked. The Blueshirts rank fourth in the NHL with a 2.25 GAA.
Since joining the Rangers, Raanta is 15-6-2 with a .923 save percentage and a 2.21 GAA in 30 games. He's giving the Blueshirts elite-level netminding at a bargain salary cap hit of $1 million.
As the season wears on, it's likely that Raanta will continue to provide the Rangers with quality stand-in appearances and, even more crucial to the cause, should be able to keep Lundqvist's reduced workload on target.
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