Monday, April 27, 2009

Should there even be a goalie controversy in New York?

When I saw this poll question posted on a New York Rangers message board yesterday, it was a stunner. I never thought to this day that such an idea would be discussed.

This 14-year-old kid from Rochester, New York (who is a Buffalo Sabres fan, I may add) was the one who brought the topic up for discussion. It is understandable that this poll question was raised and it is fine that it was. It gets people talking. But in all truthfulness here, there isn't any goalie controversy in New York City.

The Rangers are in a major dogfight to advance to the Eastern Conference Semifinals and can only get there if they defeat the Washington Capitals tomorrow night at the Verizon Center in Game 7 of their first round series. Their team play has basically followed the trend of their regular season as one of the most consistently inconsistent teams in the entire league. That said, Rangers fans are frustrated with their team's play a lot more often than not.

In the aftermath of the Rangers having lost the last two playoff games of the series to the Capitals, backup goaltender Stephen Valiquette has played the last two third periods in place of Henrik Lundqvist who had looked at best as average. Valiquette held the fort together and has not allowed a goal in 9 shots he's faced. I know, not even a double figure shot total, but still, he did his job in a mop-up role.

Against Washington, the Rangers all but stole the first two games of the series on the road where the Verizon Center has been a house of horrors in recent memory in terms of them simply winning there. New York withstood a Washington rally in Game 1 on April 15th in which they had 3-1 lead, blown it, but still won 4-3 on the heroics of Brandon Dubinsky's game-winning goal in the third period. Lundqvist was excellent in net, but not as spectacular as he was in Game 2 on April 18th before a national audience on NBC. He would make 35 saves in his first career playoff shutout, a 1-0 victory. At the time, the Rangers had a 2-0 series lead and plenty of optimism as they headed home.

But New York would then lay an egg in Game 3 last Monday night at Madison Square Garden with a 4-0 loss. Twenty-year-old Capitals goaltender Simeon Varlamov turned the tables on the Rangers with his own first career playoff shutout with a 33-save effort. He has been in the Washington net since Game 1 after Jose Theodore was not his best.

Varlamov was good enough to have kept his starting job in this series where he had a shutout streak of 126:11 before Paul Mara and Chris Drury's offensive output would just be enough for a 2-1 Game 4 win. Lundqvist appeared to be back on track with one of the most impressive outings of his four-year National Hockey League career with 38 saves on 39 shots, including some brilliant stops in the process.

Along came Game 5 and from the onset, the Rangers looked unprepared, undisciplined and downright abysmal in a number of areas to their game. No offense, no consistent offensive threat and special teams were atrocious. As soon as Matt Bradley scored a shorthanded goal nearly five minutes into the game and later added another goal in which Lundqvist played it very poorly where Washington grabbed a 2-0 lead, many observers knew this wasn't New York's night. It was proven right in another 4-0 loss in which Lundqvist was pulled and Valiquette finished up.

Yesterday, the Rangers lost for the second time in three home games of this series as Lundqvist was again overwhelmed and off his game in a 5-3 loss in Game 6 where he allowed 5 goals on 20 shots before Valiquette once again played a flawless third period.

So do the Rangers throw in Valiquette for Game 7 as Washington did following Game 1?

Why would head coach John Tortorella bench Lundqvist for the most important game of the entire season when he is your MVP that got you into the playoffs to begin with? If it wasn't for Lundqvist, the Rangers would've already been playing golf by now.

I know, Lundqvist was pulled at the second intermission in each of the last two games and Valiquette did not allow a goal in both third periods. But the game was out of reach in each one, so it is not like Valiquette had to save the day for New York. It only proved that Valiquette is plenty capable of stopping pucks in playoff games.

If Valiquette starts tomorrow night over Lundqvist, not only does it mean the Rangers lost confidence in him, but they put out the white flag in surrendering the series and season to the Capitals. No offense to Valiquette, but Lundqvist is the big money goalie here and needs to be between the pipes if the Rangers stand any chance to move on to the second round.

So to anyone that even suggests there is a goaltender controversy is out of his mind. Time to see Lundqvist step up and prove once again why he is among the elite goaltenders in all of hockey. Win a Game 7 against a superior team like Washington, it'll help erase the bad memories of the last two contests and restore some confidence in the team they still have a shot to come out of the Eastern Conference this postseason.

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