If there was the slightest bit of doubt that Henrik Lundqvist was the clear-cut No. 1 goaltender for the New York Rangers, it has been eliminated this week.
A day after agreeing to a seven-year contract extension, Lundqvist is likely to return to the ice after a rare two-game stretch on the bench as New York desperately tries to get some momentum going Thursday night against the Buffalo Sabres.
"It was never an option for me to leave this club," Lundqvist said after the new deal was announced. "I really want to win the Cup here in New York."
This trip to Buffalo precedes a nine-game homestand which will take the Rangers (14-14-0) through Christmas, a stretch Lundqvist would surely welcome. He has a 1.69 goals-against average at Madison Square Garden compared to 3.28 on the road.
He hasn't been in net at MSG since Nov. 19 because New York's only two home games since then - also its two most recent games - were started by Cam Talbot even though Lundqvist was healthy. Talbot had been outplaying Lundqvist, going 6-1-0 with a 1.49 GAA through November while the five-time Vezina Trophy finalist was 8-11-0 with a career-worst 2.51 GAA.
However, Talbot came back down to Earth on Monday, giving up four goals on 29 shots in a 5-2 loss to Winnipeg. Two days later, the team announced it had agreed to terms on the new deal with Lundqvist worth a reported $59.5 million.
"Since his arrival in New York in 2005, Henrik has consistently been one of the elite goaltenders in the NHL," team president Glen Sather said. "... We are excited to have him remain as a cornerstone of the franchise."
Lundqvist's 47 shutouts are two shy of Ed Giacomin for the franchise record, but he hasn't had one since making 29 saves in a 2-0 home win over the Sabres on Oct. 31 in the teams' only meeting.
He could be primed for a repeat performance considering Buffalo averages a league-low 1.61 goals and was blanked for the fifth time Saturday, 1-0 in overtime at New Jersey.
A four-day break since that game, though, has given the Sabres (6-20-2) a chance to better acquaint themselves with coach Ted Nolan - who's been behind the bench for eight games - and his system. Buffalo's NHL-worst record includes a 1-5-1 mark since Nolan was re-hired.
"I think everybody is on the same page here," center Cody McCormick told the team's official website. "Everybody is bringing their work ethic to the rink every day. You come to the rink excited."
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault hasn't been excited by his club's effort. New York has gone 5-6-0 in its last 11 games, not winning or losing more than two straight, and has scored fewer than three goals eight times in that span.
"We're definitely not getting the traction that I know we want," Vigneault said. "The only way we're going to get traction and get better is by playing more consistent hockey. Is this team a .500 hockey club? We're certainly playing like one."
New York has won six of the past eight matchups with Buffalo, though it's hard to blame Ryan Miller for the Sabres' struggles in the series. He's 8-3-3 with a 1.96 GAA against the Rangers, including a 44-save effort Oct. 31.
Miller has a league-high 15 losses and a career-worst 3.05 GAA.
Rick Nash, who had a three-game goal streak snapped Monday, has scored four in his last four matchups with Buffalo.
Cody Hodgson tops the Sabres with 17 points but has gone a season-high three straight games without one and has only two in six career matchups with the Rangers.