By Sean Hartnett
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Henrik Lundqvist is turning in some of the finest goaltending of his distinguished career at a time when he's getting little help from an injury-hit and underperforming supporting cast.
Monday's 2-1 road defeat to the Dallas Stars was a microcosm of the All-Star's 2017-18 season.
That frustration was clear to see when hunched Lundqvist left the ice at American Airlines Center. He was voted the No. 1 star of the game after making 39 saves to the tune of a .951 save percentage on a night when the Rangers were pinned in their end for long stretches.
Lundqvist turned away 21 first-period shots, allowing the Rangers to enter the first intermission with a lead despite managing just nine shots of their own. As the game wore on, the Stars continued to unload on Lundqvist. Dallas finished with a 41-32 shots advantage and out-attempted New York, 85-55.
Lundqvist has posted a .919 save percentage in 45 games this season. The 35-year-old netminder routinely keeps the Rangers in games that should for all intents and purposes be one-sided given their habitual possession problems and issues defending the low slot.
The Rangers have now lost six of their last seven games and have just three regulation wins in their last 19 games. They are currently missing five of their regulars: Chris Kreider (rib surgery), Kevin Shattenkirk (knee surgery), Pavel Buchnevich (concussion), Marc Staal (cervical strain) and Jimmy Vesey (concussion).
With a 25-23-5 record, the Rangers (55 points) currently sit in last place in the Metropolitan Division and trail the rival Islanders (54 games played) by three points in the race for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.
Head coach Alain Vigneault is currently relying on youngsters like 22-year-old defenseman Tony DeAngelo and 23-year-old forward Vinni Lettieri to help fill the void created by all the injuries. Both have performed well of late and their overall play stood out as positives on Monday.
Lettieri earned an assist on David Desharnais' opening goal and recorded three shots of his own. The 5-foot-11 forward has notched five points in 11 career NHL games, all this season. He is confident with the puck and is never afraid to shoot, displaying the kind of urgency in the offensive end that the Rangers have sorely lacked.
Though DeAngelo committed two third-period penalties against Dallas, his play on both ends of the ice has been more refined compared to his initial eight-game spell with the Blueshirts in October. He has been showing off an ability to advance the puck quickly with his legs and instincts.
"Defensively, he's been very stable," Vigneault said of DeAngelo last week. "His stick is better, he's in better positions to take lanes away and take the opposition's options away. He's been good with the puck. He's made some good, heads-up plays. Most of the games we've been tracking him he's been on the positive side of chances for and against. I like what he's brought to our team so far."
The upside in DeAngelo's game is clear. He may have yo-yoed between the NHL and AHL with the Arizona Coyotes, but I don't think the Rangers' confidence in him is misplaced. New York was willing to trade veterans Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta in part because of DeAngelo's intriguing potential as a smooth-skating, point-getting defenseman. That potential is starting to bear fruit at the NHL level.
Rangers Reportedly Request Nash's N0-Trade List
A Monday morning report by TSN insider Bob McKenzie indicated that the Rangers asked alternate captain Rick Nash to declare his 18-team list of teams that he cannot be traded to. Nash submitted the list to the team on Sunday. Under the conditions of his contract, the Rangers would be able to send Nash to any of the 12 teams not on the list or an expanded list should he waive his no-trade clause.
Though the 33-year-old wing has stated a desire to remain with the Blueshirts, logic suggests that general manager Jeff Gorton will explore all possible avenues to ensure that he gets a haul for the six-time All-Star.
Following a slow offensive start, Nash has contributed 15 goals and 10 assists in 52 games this season. The 6-foot-4 forward is currently on pace to finish with 23 goals. His goal-scoring ability, special teams value and committed effort across three zones would be a boost to any contending club that is able to strike a deal with the Rangers.
There have been cases where trade deadline sellers have acquired picks and prospects in exchange for a rental player who ultimately returns to his previous club as a free agent. The Coyotes were able to fetch a first-round pick and defenseman Klas Dahlbeck from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Antoine Vermette at the 2015 trade deadline. Vermette then re-joined the Coyotes as an unrestricted free agent after helping the 'Hawks to the Stanley Cup.
Nash is in the final year of a contract that carries a $7.8 million cap charge. Any salary retained by the Rangers could entice a trading partner to surrender extra assets in return.
It's possible that the Rangers could deal away Nash, Michael Grabner and possibly others for pieces that can help in future, then turn around and re-sign them during the summer. Gorton will be looking to gather picks and prospects as the Feb. 26 trade deadline draws closer.
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