Here’s the conundrum: Henrik Lundqvist got his game back over the past month by playing a lot, and he wants to keep playing a lot to keep it going. But then there is the looming postseason, the question of him being fresh, and Rangers coach Alain Vigneault’s dictum that he wanted Lundqvist to play fewer than 60 games in the regular season.
How to best utilize your hot goaltender is a good problem for the Rangers to have, unlike the struggles that defined the way Lundqvist ended the 2016 calendar year and started 2017.
“I feel like I’m at the level where I want to be,” Lundqvist told The Post after Friday’s practice.
Lundqvist is scheduled to sit the first game of this weekend back-to-back, letting understudy Antti Raanta take on the Devils at Prudential Center on Saturday before he gets between the pipes for the Garden match against the Blue Jackets on Sunday.
“Technically, mentally, physically, it all feels pretty good right now,” Lundqvist said. “Made some adjustments, both technically and mentally, just simplify a couple things. It’s been feeling a lot better.”
The game Lundqvist played against the electric young Maple Leafs on Thursday in Toronto was vintage, allowing his team to win a 2-1 shootout after he shined just as brightly during a 3-2 shootout loss to the Canadiens at the Garden on Tuesday. The Rangers are 8-1-1 in the past 10 games, and a lot of that has to do with the confidence a rolling Lundqvist brings to those in front of him.
“There’s no doubt that he’s found his game, and that’s reflected on our whole team,” Vigneault said. “It’s reflected on our ‘D’ and it’s reflected on our forwards, and how they’re playing.”
Saturday is the first of the final 22 games of the season, and, as Vigneault pointed out, the Rangers have six remaining back-to-backs after this weekend. The coach said Raanta likely will get one of those games in each instance, meaning there would be 15 remaining starts for Lundqvist, beginning Sunday. Having already played in 46 games (44 starts), that would put Lundqvist at 59 games (57 starts), just about where Vigneault wanted him.
“I don’t think you should focus on a number,” Lundqvist said. “You have to go with the flow. Yeah, you can have a goal and sort of think about that number, but in the end, it’s about going with the flow and see how you feel, how you react the games, the travel. You can’t be too stubborn with a number. In the end it’s about feeling it out.”
It also has helped the Rangers are playing better defensively now that they have rediscovered their confidence in their goaltender. During this 10-game stretch, they have averaged giving up exactly two goals per game. Raanta dealt with a little bit of an injury in mid-January, so Lundqvist has played in 21 of the past 22 games, and that is what has turned around his — and the Rangers’ — season.
“I don’t think there’s one specific point or game, but I do think Hank did work on certain aspects of his technique, and he really focused on those areas,” Vigneault said. “I think that’s helped his game, his confidence in goal and his movements. It’s reflected on what our guys are doing in front of him.”
Now that the Rangers are solidly in postseason position and don’t have to put too much concern on actually making the playoffs, they can focus more on being prepared for when they get there. Everyone knows this team can only go far if Lundqvist is on top of his game, which he is now. The question is how to keep him there.
“Sometimes it’s easier, too, when things get more important, more heated, it’s easier to find the right focus,” Lundqvist said. “Pressure goes up a little bit, and I don’t mind that. Now, it’s fun going down the stretch and getting closer to the big test.”
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