(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)
Henrik Lundqvist returned to the lineup on Saturday for the first time since Feb. 2, meaning he missed more than a month and a half.
On Feb. 2, the Rangers earned their 62nd point of the season in just their 48th game, which is a pretty good rate (a pace for almost 106 points for the season) but only good enough for third in the division and a tie for seventh in the conference. Losing Lundqvist was supposed to have been a disaster of near-biblical proportions.
Lundqvist is perhaps the single most important player in the league in terms of what he brings to his team every night, in the form of reliably all-time-great goaltending; the last time he was south of .920 for the season, a rate touched only 134 times in league history, Barack Obama had been in office for three months. Thus, losing him for any length of time could have proved disastrous. A month and a half might have been a death sentence.
And in previous years, maybe it would have been. But Alain Vigneault has done such a good job coaching, and Cam Talbot such a good job in Lundqvist's relief, that the Rangers instead racked up another 39 points in his absence, this time in just 25 games. It's a pace for about 128 points over 82 games. This is an impossible accomplishment. To go 18-4-3 without one of the four or five greatest goalies of all time, especially given how good the top of the East has been this season, is remarkable. The Rangers catapulted from the middle of the East to the top of the league without Henrik Lundqvist. Not even the most indefatigable optimist could have seen this coming.
A lot of this, of course, is down to the play of Cam Talbot, who proved himself probably the best backup in the league during this stretch. I often find it difficult to determine whether a No. 2 goaltender is actually good; it's just so hard to judge. They only play once every few weeks in a lot of cases, and often against the teams that aren't very good, the ones for which coaches think to themselves that they could put just about anyone out there and still wring at least a point from the contest. Being a backup is challenging in its own way, sure, but for Talbot to do this over more than a six-week stretch was unforeseeable. Playing 33 games in a season is not something you often ask of your backups, and you never expect their performance to surpass that of the guy in front of you.
And look, the guy was .941 in 21 appearances last season, so it's not like anyone thought he was bad, but that goes back to his competition: The Oilers twice, the Wild twice, the Islanders twice, the Leafs twice, etc. For the most part he wasn't drawing the difficult assignments. What he's had to deal with since the Lundqvist injury is a lot tougher; 13 of his 23 starts were against current playoff teams, and 12 were on the road. His .929 over that stretch (stopping 653 of 703) would be almost slam-dunk Vezina worthy if carried over an entire season.
Looking at this chart of save percentage in all situations, it isn't too hard to guess when Talbot took over the job:
Well actually, it might be, because Talbot allowed 26 goals in eight games pretty soon after the Lundqvist injury against some rotten teams (Toronto, Colorado, Arizona, and Columbus were all mixed in there). But since then, as you can see, lights out.
So I got to wondering: Did Talbot really turn into a .950-plus goalie after that rough stretch, or did the Rangers fundamentally change something about the way they played with Lundqvist out of the lineup? The pre- and post-Lundqvist splits break down thusly:
Those numbers prior to Lundqvist getting hurt indicate to me that the Rangers were at least somewhat lucky to be in a playoff position at all. Getting out-possessed over 40-plus games isn't often a recipe for success, especially considering that they were playing fairly low-event hockey; that corsi-for and -against per 60 were ninth-lowest and 13th-highest in the league, so the fact that they had the seventh-highest goals for per 60 in the league points to a lot of bounces going their way. The save percentage is, well, what happens when you run out Henrik Lundqvist and a very capable backup for 39 of 48 (Talbot was personally .926 in all situations before the industry).
But man, look at what the Rangers have done since: First of all, they got luckier. No one can reliably shoot 9.4 percent over a reasonably long stretch of games, nor should one count on improving upon Lundqvist's performance, and yet this is what happened here. The increase in percentages alone is probably enough to win them that many more points per game.
What I think is interesting, though, is just how much the Rangers changed their style of play. That they 12 percent to their shots-for per 60 minutes is a shocking jump, especially because, again, the schedule really wasn't all that easy. What seems to have happened is that they really just pumped the bad teams they did play (61 shot attempts against Buffalo, 59 and 54 against Arizona, 59 against Philadelphia, 53 against Calgary, 57 each against Toronto and Dallas) and did a slightly better job holding their own against the good ones.
This is a team with some very good players, guys who are going to drive numbers for you. But also some very bad ones who hurt the team when they're on the ice. The gap between the two is noteworthy.
With all that having been said, though, the only thing that would really be scary about playing the Rangers down the stretch and in the playoffs is the acknowledgement that the goaltenders really are that good. I'm not sure I buy .937 at even strength as Talbot's actual capability, but .930 for Lundqvist is only up one point from his career average, so that's about what you're gonna get.
I would tend not to believe the hype on these Rangers, but Lundqvist is always going to present cause for concern. He can steal a game or a series with little difficulty. Not that it's any sort of surprise to hear that.
Lundqvist is really good. The Blueshirts, not so much.
What We Learned
Arizona Coyotes: Shane Doan hit Kris Letang about an hour after he released the puck, and he feels “awful” about it. But because it's Doan it's a “pretty honest hit.” Of course. Doan could run over a dog with a monster truck on national TV and every hockey announcer would act like it was the world's biggest unforeseeable accident. Dude's a predatory player with a history of dangerous, cheap hits that hurt people, plain and simple.
Calgary Flames: Hmm, this was written while the Flames did not occupy a playoff spot, with five of the Flames' remaining games on the road. Maybe a little early to be breaking out the “Calgary made the playoffs” champagne.
Carolina Hurricanes: Justin Faulk is very quietly pushing 50 points from the blue line. No one's talking about it because the Hurricanes are way out of the playoff race, but that's a very nice season.
Chicago: This is why you gotta get Michal Rozsival back in the lineup!!
Detroit Red Wings: Justin Abdelkader is up to 23 goals on the season, and his shooting percentage isn't even double his career average! Lots of guys have their “breakout” 45-point seasons at 27 and keep it up for the remainder of their careers.
Florida Panthers: If Florida is going to “continue” its “push” for the playoffs, it might need to figure out a way to make a three-point game mean they get all three points.
Los Angeles Kings: Tough one for the Kings to lose, as they had a one-point lead and a game in hand on the Flames, who themselves lost to Minnesota just a night before. Not that it's probably going to matter very much, but man, being up three points instead of one would go a long way.
Montreal Canadiens: This might be the best-executed 4-on-3 power play in league history. Five touches in six seconds, right into the net.
Nashville Predators, America's Favorite Hockey Team: The Preds are officially back in the playoffs for the first time in years, and despite all that recent losing, still have 100 points and lead Conference III. Preds pride, baby.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Kris Letang out indefinitely with a concussion thanks to that Shane Doan hit. I don't know if that's worse news for him personally or the Pens as a whole.
St. Louis Blues: Getting Kevin Shattenkirk back at this point is probably good for the Blues.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Your occasional reminder that people still sometimes take Don Cherry seriously.
Play of the Weekend
Very nice individual effort for Carl Soderberg on this one. Welcome back, Henrik.
Gold Star Award
Tyler Bozak had a hat trick on Saturday so the below is pretty much a vote of confidence from the future No. 1 overall pick.
Minus of the Weekend
This is a real quote from Connor McDavid.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week
User “PredsForPresidents” is wearing his thinking cap.
2016 1st round pick
Nathan Mackinnon or Duchene
Nathan Mackinnon or Duchene
Conditional 2016 1st round pick( If they're in the top 5, then it's a 2017 first)
All of this sounds good.
And I don't care that you're bowlegged and I don't care that you're bilingual.
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