Rangers face goalie choice ahead of Blackhawks' visit (Dec 13, 2016)
NEW YORK -- When the Chicago Blackhawks take the ice at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, they will face one of the top goaltenders in the league.
It is just a matter of which one New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault decides to start.
For the first time in more than a decade, there is a genuine goaltending controversy with the Rangers, who will face the Blackhawks for the second time in less than a week. With Henrik Lundqvist struggling, Vigneault handed the reins to backup Antti Raanta for three consecutive starts. Raanta rewarded his coach's faith by going 3-0-0 with two shutouts, including one in Chicago on Friday.
After Raanta made 19 saves in a 5-0 home win against the New Jersey Devils on Sunday, he became the first Rangers goaltender since 2003 to record back-to-back shutouts.
So who will Vigneault have in net against the Blackhawks?
"Do I know who I'm going to start next game?" Vigneault asked aloud Sunday. "Yes, I do. But I haven't told them."
With the Rangers keeping it secret from the media Sunday and not practicing Monday, no one knows if it will be Raanta for a fourth straight start or if Lundqvist will reassume the net.
"Hank's like all our players: team-first attitude," Vigneault said Sunday morning to the New York Daily News. "And right now there's no doubt that Antti's playing real well and deserves to play. I love Hank, but I love the team more, and right now Antti is on top of his game."
Lundqvist said all the right things while riding the bench.
"If (Raanta) didn't play that well and I'd still be sitting here, that'd be harder to accept," Lundqvist told the Daily News on Sunday. "Obviously I understand it when he's playing that well. Again, it comes down to what's best for the team. I'm not gonna try to convince anyone when (Vigneault) believes this is the best for the group right now."
The Blackhawks are in a similar situation, as they are riding backup goaltender Scott Darling with Corey Crawford out two to three weeks after an appendectomy. In five starts since taking over for Crawford, Darling is 2-2-1 and has allowed just seven goals. He has given up two goals on 83 shots in his past three starts.
Tuesday could provide a rematch of the 1-0 overtime thriller between the teams that saw Raanta outduel Darling, two players who found themselves vying for the backup job in Chicago before Raanta was traded to New York in June 2015.
"It kind of builds your intensity," Darling said to the Chicago Sun-Times of facing Raanta. "He's making big saves. You don't want to be the guy to let one in. It's like we're going against each other."
The Blackhawks aren't just depleted by injury in net.
Jonathan Toews missed the past nine games with a back injury, although he skated Sunday morning before the Blackhawks' 3-1 win against the Dallas Stars. Brent Seabrook sat out his second consecutive game with an upper-body injury, but he also skated Sunday and feels as if he could play Tuesday against the Rangers.
"I thought it was better," Seabrook said Sunday to the Chicago Sun-Times. "I felt better waking up this morning and getting back out there, passing pucks and a little skate ... at the end I thought was good. Felt good."
Both Toews and Seabrook joined the team in New York, so their status likely will be decided Tuesday morning.
"Certainly good to get him on the ice," coach Joel Quenneville said to the Chicago Sun-Times of Toews. "We feel he can be close, but then again we want to make sure that there's some certainty that he's going to be fine and we're not going to go backwards on this one. So let's make sure we're all clear going forward."