Howard Simmons/New York Daily News
Cam Talbot makes the most of his last two starts for the Rangers.
WASHINGTON – Rangers backup goalie Cam Talbot could go from the Christmas tree to the Christmas three on Friday night – as in a third consecutive start ahead of a healthy Henrik Lundqvist, as the Rangers emerge from the NHL’s three-day holiday break.
Alain Vigneault will not announce until Friday morning’s skate at Verizon Center whether he intends to stick with Talbot against the Capitals, but the coach may have run out of reasons not to, with his Blueshirts opening a five-game road trip that also visits Tampa Bay, Florida, Pittsburgh and Toronto.
Talbot backstopped two straight wins for the Rangers (18-18-2) on Sunday and Monday to close a nine-game December homestand at 3-4-2. Not only did the team play with more emotion, discipline and speed in front of their first-year goaltender; Talbot, 26, made 49 saves on 51 shots, allowing just one goal in each game, one of which was upheld on a controversial ruling by the league office in Toronto.
“We ended on a high-note,” Talbot said after Monday’s 2-1 shootout win over the Maple Leafs. “Hopefully we can come out of the Christmas break and continue to play the way we (have) the past two games.”
Lundqvist, 31, by comparison, had held only one opponent to fewer than two goals in his previous 11 starts, and only two opponents under three goals. New York’s No. 1 goalie also has received less protection from his defense and has failed to make many key early saves. In total, the Rangers have won eight of Talbot’s 10 starts and just 10 of Lundqvist’s 27.
If Talbot starts on Friday, it will mark the first time Lundqvist has missed three consecutive starts for any reason since Dec. 17-21, 2006, when Kevin Weekes made three straight starts – all losses – over a healthy Lundqvist, who thereafter assumed his workhorse role for good.
Howard Simmons/New York Daily News
Henrik Lundqvist hasn’t been a healthy scratch for three straight games since 2006.
Going to Talbot against the Caps wouldn’t be a shot across the bow by Vigneault as much as a response to his team’s and goaltenders’ recent performances. It remains to be seen, however, how far the organization is willing to push this goalie juggling. After all, Lundqvist’s cap hit is $ 6.875 million this season and $ 8.5 million every season after through 2020-21. Talbot makes $ 562,500 per season and becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2015.
Lundqvist has started both previous matchups this season against the Capitals (1-1-0), including a 2-0 shutout in Washington on Oct. 16, and he’s also very familiar with the Caps, having faced them in four playoff series in the last five years.
As poorly as the Rangers have played this season, they remain in fourth place in the weak Metropolitan Division, only four points behind the Capitals (19-14-4, 42 points). Six teams are within six points of each other, sandwiched by the first-place Pittsburgh Penguins (55 points) and last-place Islanders (29 points). Three teams from the division automatically make the playoffs.
Washington captain Alec Ovechkin leads the NHL with 30 goals, including four goals in his last five games, but he has just two goals and two assists in his last 12 games against the Rangers. That includes one goal and one assist in three meetings last regular season; one goal and one assist in a seven-round first-round playoff series last spring; and no points in two meetings thus far this season.
Captain Ryan Callahan (left knee sprain) and alternate captain Marc Staal (concussion) both are traveling with the Rangers on this trip. Staal skated on his own Thursday as his rehabilitation continues from the Dec. 7 injury, but he has no timetable for a return. Callahan is off crutches and is estimated to return between Jan. 7-21 … Defenseman Dylan McIlrath, who recently made his NHL debut with the Rangers before returning to the AHL, reinjured the left knee he had surgically repaired in July 2012 during a game last Saturday. The Rangers said Thursday that McIlrath will be reevaluated in a week.