This was not Willie Mays falling down in center field. Not even in the ballpark. So let’s get that straight.
But to have to issue that disclaimer up front about Henrik Lundqvist’s first start since Feb. 3 and fourth in 60 days is disheartening enough in itself.
For imagine having the obligation to inform the audience that the greatest goaltender in franchise history did not embarrass himself on the Garden ice.
For a few brief shining moments, when the announcement of the starting goaltender’s name was greeted by a spirited ovation and then when the building rocked with bygone chants of “Henrik … Henrik …” when Lundqvist turned away Jake Voracek’s 40-foot drive on the power play, it sounded like 2012.
But then not so long after, with the Flyers not only capitalizing on that early power play to score on a rebound at 1:52 but on a second man-advantage to score on a rebound at 11:19, and then on a Rangers’ power play to score shorthanded on an odd-man rush for a 3-0 lead at 17:53 of the opening period, it sounded and looked like 2004.
“When you haven’t played in a long time, personally, you want to go out there and try to grow and build a good feeling, but obviously that was pretty tough when you give up three first-period goals,” said the reflective and realistic Lundqvist. “I don’t think I was very good.
“I was hoping for a better feeling personally coming out there but a lot of times you create that feeling by doing a lot of good things. I felt like I was doing a few good things and then when you put yourself in that kind of hole, three or four goals [down], it’s hard to play a patient game.
“So it is what it is. I knew coming into this game it would be a great challenge for me to be on top of my game,” said the King, who will turn 38 on Monday. “I’ve been working hard, but in the end it’s about how you focus and making good decisions.”
Lundqvist did appear to move and react more instinctively as the match evolved instead of looking wooden in his movements as he had early in the contest. Of course he did and of course he did. It is impossible to say whether October’s Lundqvist would have yielded those three in the first period, or whether 2014’s Lundqvist would have been able to prevent Derek Grant from scoring on a semi-breakaway 83 seconds into the second period, or whether February’s Igor Shesterkin or Alex Georgiev would have stopped any or all of Philadelphia’s filthy five.
Impossible to say and also immaterial, for this is the scenario the Rangers created when the hierarchy chose to consign Lundqvist to third-wheel status in the aftermath of Shesterkin’s promotion on Jan. 6 and Georgiev’s outstanding work in a backup role. This isn’t about next year. This isn’t about an offseason conversation. This is about the push to the playoffs, which has been entrusted to and enabled by the two young guys, who have combined for a .929 save percentage, 2.49 GAA and 15-5 record while the senior citizen has gone 1-3 with a .865 save percentage and 3.75 GAA.
Of course, some of this as it relates to Lundqvist has become an organizational self-fulfilling prophecy/vicious circle. The less the Swede plays, the less likely he is to play well. The less likely he is to play well, the less likely coach David Quinn is likely to tab him for a starting assignment. There is no question that Lundqvist’s self-confidence is at a low ebb. How could it not be?
If Shesterkin had not suffered that non-displaced rib fracture in last Sunday’s car crash, Lundqvist might not have gotten another start until after the Blueshirts either clinched or were mathematically eliminated from a playoff spot. The Rangers had their rotation.
Georgiev, who has never started more than three straight games, will all but certainly get the call for Tuesday’s Garden match against the reigning Stanley Cup champion Blues. The Caps are in on Thursday, then the Devils on March 8. Would the Rangers be comfortable giving Lundqvist either of those games?
Or, barring disastrous results, would they be more comfortable riding Georgiev until Shesterkin, who is already back on the ice taking low shots, is able to return, which could be sooner rather than later?
Asked and answered, don’t you think?
Again. This is not about next year, it is not about the summer, it is not about the King’s legacy. It is about now as the Rangers attempt to reassert themselves in the race following consecutive subpar performances against a superior team.
It is about Henrik Lundqvist finally getting a chance to play and not embarrassing himself, and did I just write that?