It’s now been 17 dark, empty games since Henrik Lundqvist went down with the injury that would stress-test the Rangers goaltending depth for the first time since 2006.
Okay, it hasn’t been that bad without the most consistent goaltender of the last decade. You’ve surely noticed the Rangers haven’t lost a step in the standings, and are now on pace to finish first in the NHL (check out the table in the right margin, as well as the quality writing elsewhere on Hockey Rodent).
So how have the Rangers managed to stay afloat without their all-world goaltender?
This is the tale of two Talbots.
It wasn’t long ago that the Rangers signed Cam Talbot to his first contract extension, a 1-year $1.45M pact that seemed part “thank you” and part “but you haven’t proved anything yet”. He played well in relief of Lundqvist in 2013-14, and stood out when Lundqvist’s contract extension was impacting the King’s game (not a proven theory, but it sure did seem like it). The fact that Talbot even made the team last season was remarkable on its own. Nobody saw the sudden retirement of Martin Biron coming, especially not in the first few weeks of the season. Talbot moved into the backup role and finished the season with a .941 SV% and 1.61 GAA in 19 starts - more than you could ask for from your second in command in his first season.
So when the Lundqvist injury shocked the hockey world, Talbot was thrust into yet another opportunity. Let’s take a look at his first 8 games since the Rangers sidelined Lundqvist.
Yikes! These are uncharacteristically bad numbers, even if he did pick up five wins. Also, five of these games were on the road, but three of those games came against non-playoff teams. There’s no denying how fun these games were to watch, but Rangers management may not have enjoyed the constant lead-changes and puck-handling gaffes that were becoming almost habitual. And then the rumors started.
The Rangers had been linked to Antoine Vermette for months leading up to the trade deadline, as the center position was believed to be the weakest part of their roster. With Talbot struggling, the focus shifted to possibly acquiring a veteran goaltender to lighten the load until Lundqvist returned. An addition like this could handcuff the cap-crunched Rangers heading into the deadline.
Alain Vigneault saw an opportunity to give Talbot some rest (remember, this is the first time Talbot’s been a “number one” goalie in a couple of years), and Mackenzie Skapski was given his first NHL start against Buffalo, winning 3-1 after allowing a goal in the first 14 seconds of the game. Since that game, Vigneault has handed the reigns to Talbot, and here’s what he has to show for it.
His numbers are... ridiculous. It’s hard to say which statistic is the most impressive, but being named 3rd star of the week by the NHL is certainly on the list, an honor bestowed on Lundqvist only four times in his career. If you pull out just his March numbers, it’s even more impressive:
Talbot has started off the month by facing four of the League’s top teams, and scooping up 7 out of 8 possible points. We’ll let his individual numbers speak for themselves, though we can’t leave out that his shutout of the Blackhawks was the first by a Rangers goalie since 1969.
Henrik Lundqvist is still the undisputed leader of this team, and 17 games isn’t going to change that, at least not this season. Nobody should doubt that Talbot will be second-banana in April, but he does give the Rangers something that a playoff team never realizes it needs until it doesn’t have it: a solid backup goalie.
Just ask Montreal...
And thinking a bit longer down the road, his $1.425M cap hit is sure looking pretty cheap right now, don’t you think? I wonder what he’d fetch on the trade market...