MONTREAL — So Alain Vigneault is going with Ondrej Pavelec in goal again for Saturday night’s game here, and one can understand why the coach is deploying his backup for the second consecutive match, but this decision does not come without risk.
First, this can’t possibly be about the proverbial hot hand because the Rangers (3-6-2) don’t have a hot goaltender. A hand isn’t hot because of one solid performance, and it certainly doesn’t become hot by doing the job against the NHL-worst Coyotes, still winless after Pavelec made 27 saves during Thursday’s 5-2 victory. But credit to Pavelec for doing what he needed to do, making some key saves along the way while his teammates preyed on 21-year-old rookie Adin Hill at the opposite net.
Henrik Lundqvist is off to a shaky start, no doubt, and at 35 years old has already started nine of the Blueshirts’ first 11 games. The Rangers go from the worst team in the league to the second-worst in the reeling Canadiens. Lessening Lundqvist’s workload and getting Pavelec — signed to a one-year deal to replace the traded Antti Raanta — playing time against struggling opposition makes sense, but by no means is Pavelec the obvious choice for a Rangers team that needs to string some wins together.
It should be noted, though, that for the number of soft goals and bad reads Lundqvist has made this season, his 3.11 goals against average and .900 save percentage are partially a product of the shoddy defensive play in front of him. This isn’t to excuse the King, who must be better and is paid to help mitigate others’ mistakes. It’s the reality of the Rangers’ turnover-laden start to the season. (Kevin Shattenkirk was credited with seven giveaways Thursday, including a criminal one at his own end boards that ended up in the Ranger net seconds later.)
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You can forget the narrative that Lundqvist can’t win at the Bell Centre. Because his 3.87 GAA and .877 save percentage in 15 regular-season games in that building were made irrelevant with his three superlative performances here in the first round in April: A 31-save shutout in Game 1, 54 saves on 58 shots in a Game 2 overtime loss and 34 saves on 36 shots in a Game 5 overtime win.
Lundqvist, by the way, pitched a 34-save shutout against the Canadiens on Oct. 8 at the Garden. And Pavelec’s career numbers at Bell Centre? 3.18 GAA, .898 save percentage.
This isn’t last season in December when Raanta was playing lights out and earned four straight starts while Lundqvist was healthy on the bench. This can’t be about overall performance. In Pavelec’s two appearances before Thursday — one in relief of Lundqvist after a terrible first period in Toronto and the other a start against the Devils — Pavelec stopped 37 of 43 shots and had a 3.76 GAA.
Vigneault’s explanation for going with Pavelec Saturday was simply, “Just feel it’s the right thing to do for the game (Saturday.)”
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Lundqvist should return to goal Tuesday against red-hot Vegas after a week between games. Pavelec starting Saturday can be justified, but it’s not at all a slam-dunk decision.
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