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Rangers Goaltending Matchup An Important Heads-On Peek Into the Future

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Mackenzie Skapski and Magnus Hellberg will dress for the Rangers tonight, ceremonially beginning the battle between the Rangers' many goaltending prospects.

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One of the great things about Game of Thrones is the layout of story lines. There are hundreds of characters dispersed over dozens of locations with different motivations. Many of the characters know about each other but have never met, and HBO is in no rush to change that, instead slowly and meticulously developing characters and plot points. It's this carefully crafted hype and build-up that makes it so chaotic and intense when the story lines do inevitably converge, characters clash directly, and the unknown of the future becomes a bit more clear.

There's a similar Game of Thrones happening at Madison Square Garden. In this story the king is Henrik Lundqvist and his throne lies in the crease. As covered many times before, the strength of the Rangers' prospect pool is in net, both in quality and quantity. Most of them are aware of each other and have even attended camps together. They have spent some time developing and trying to win the approval of Rangers' management. But a point of convergence has not occurred. They've all been playing in completely different leagues scattered across the world, not directly confronted with battling each other.

Until tonight. Magnus Hellberg and Mackenzie Skapski will dress as the two goaltenders for the Rangers in their preseason opener against the Islanders, and the expectation is that they will both feature. Of course, Lundqvist and Raanta will be manning the pipes in the NHL unless something goes very wrong. Instead, at stake is what could be their one chance to prove themselves on NHL ice with Goaltending Coach Benoit Allaire and the rest of management watching. Cam Talbot did not earn an NHL job out of training camp in 2013, but his strong preseason performances, in part, made Allaire a believer and certainly played a role in his replacing Biron as Lundqvist's backup.

Also at stake is the starting goaltending spot in Hartford. Of course, games during the season will be split between the two to a degree, but Hartford also is concerned with winning. The better goalie gives them a better chance at doing so. Performance during the regular season will dictate how games are divided as it progresses, but Hartford's coaching staff will be watching tonight intently. It's an important first impression for both.

The upside on Hellberg, 25, is not particularly high, which makes him a forgotten figure in the organization. However, he absolutely does have NHL backup potential. Skapski's injury left him uncontested in Hartford last year, and he was one of the few standouts for the underwhelming Wolf Pack. He kept Hartford in a lot of games while they struggled to score and came up with many great series of saves, but was also prone to lapses in concentration and weak goals. Backup goaltenders in the NHL have to be dependable, even if unspectacular. Such dependability is predicated on making the routine saves and thus allowing the defense to not have to compensate by adjusting the usual game plan. A strong training camp, preseason, and then season in Hartford could make the Rangers think hard about his future, and should Antti Raanta have a poor season or get injured, it could make for an interesting discussion months from now.

For Mackenzie Skapski, it's likely a different long-term aspiration but one that will require him to get through Hellberg first.  Recovering from major hip surgery, Skapski spent 2015-2016 in a glorified, season-long conditioning stint. Fair or not, it puts Hellberg in the driver's seat for being Hartford's go-to goaltender. It will be up to Skapski to make up that ground, which he absolutely has the ability and determination to do. Skapski's contract runs out at the end of this season, so this could be his last chance on Garden ice. He knows it, and so this game will be meaningful to him despite the exhibition nature.

Ultimately, it is just one preseason game, with each guy receiving less than a full game against the fair share of retreads and prospects the Islanders will similarly trot out. No decisions will be made on tonight alone, but how each player performs certainly will be part of the equation. Perhaps more important is its significance to the "plot." Henrik Lundqvist is not leaving the throne abandoned quite yet, but with him now 34 years old it's time for the jockeying to start. Story lines are now beginning to converge and characters are now confronting each other. Of course, there are others - Brandon Halverson, Igor Shesterkin, Adam Huska, and Tyler Wall - who will join the fracas at a later time. Nonetheless, tonight's game will ceremonially kickoff a long-anticipated, head-on goaltending competition which will shape the future of the Rangers' franchise.