PHILADELPHIA — The conundrum is that the Rangers are treating every game like a playoff game, which they have to if they want to stay in the race. Going into the second leg of their road back-to-back here against the Flyers on Friday night, they were two points out of the second wild-card, behind the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets.
So if every game is that important, then what will it say when Henrik Lundqvist finally rises from the bench and starts a game again?
The team’s legendary goaltender had just three starts since the club called up Igor Shesterkin on Jan. 6 and started a three-goalie logjam. But Shesterkin suffered a non-displaced rib fracture in a car accident on Sunday, set to be reevaluated in “a couple weeks.”
Alex Georgiev got the next start, a 4-3 overtime win against the Islanders at the Coliseum on Tuesday. He then started again in Montreal on Thursday night for what would be a 5-2 comeback victory, the club’s franchise-record ninth straight road win. And so coach David Quinn was set to go right back to Georgiev for the second leg of this back-to-back, with Alain Vigneault’s Flyers coming in having won seven of their previous 10 while still holding out hope to make a run atop the Metropolitan Division.
Lundqvist’s most recent start was Feb. 3, and whenever he does get back in, rust might be an issue.
“That’s something we’ve talked about,” Quinn said. “That’s part of the equation when you decide who’s going to play.”
This hasn’t been easy for Lundqvist, who turns 38 years old on March 2 and has one more year left on his contract with an annual salary-cap hit of $8.5 million. He has been candid about the need for him to sit down with management after this season to figure out what his role might be going forward — if there is a role with the Rangers at all.
He could decide to waive his no-move clause if a trade to a contender is possible, giving him another shot to take a run at that elusive Stanley Cup. Or the Rangers could decide to buy out the final year of his deal, leaving dead cap space for the next two seasons.
“We’ve had many conversations with Hank through all of this, and everybody is on the up-and-up,” team president John Davidson said after the trade deadline had passed on Monday afternoon. “I’m very confident that we’ll find a good resolution wherever we go. I’m very confident that our group, with [general manager Jeff Gorton] and Hank, communications have been very strong. And he’s been very professional. Very professional.”
That decision will come this summer. Right now, Lundqvist skates at every practice, continues to put his head down and work as hard as anyone on the roster, and awaits for the time when his number might be called again.
It’s easy to speculate when that might be — Sunday afternoon at the Garden, on national television in the second game of a home-and-home with the Flyers? That’s a big stage. And Quinn has backed up his words in dressing what he thinks is his best lineup to win every night, and that has included Georgiev.
“It feels awesome,” Georgiev said after the 32-save performance against the Canadiens when he kept his sluggish team in the game early. “Big effort by the guys. Came up huge.”
There is little question that the Rangers think Shesterkin is the future in nets, and that fact has raised the attention of both goalies on the roster.
“I think I see an extra spark in both of them,” Quinn said.
Internal competition is obviously good, as is this little playoff push. But when Lundqvist would be able to participate again was a sticky question with no easy answer.
“As much as you can say, ‘Hey, there is someone we believe in,’ when you don’t play a lot, I think that human nature kicks in,” Quinn said. “When one guy is hot and getting all the game time, it can be difficult. But both of these guys have managed it very well.”