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A tale of two Kings

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NHL: New York Rangers at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve all heard it on social media, in bars, huddled around flat screens and in the blue seats: “Henrik Lundqvist is better in the second half.”

And this year every Rangers fan is hoping that the above statement is as true as the law of gravity. Because the King has not been himself and everyone knows it.

The fact that Lundqvist has allowed 25 goals in his last seven games is downright concerning. It has the “blame Lundqvist” crowd frothing at the mouth and the Lundqvist loyalists chewing their fingernails. Is this Father Time catching up to the veteran goaltender? Or is this simply just another one of Lundqvist’s “slow starts” exacerbated by a below average defense?

A .907 save percentage just doesn’t look right next to Lundqvist’s name on player profile pages and Excel sheets. In terms of save percentage this is Lundqvist’s worst start (or first half) since the 2013-14 season. And at the time that was his lowest save percentage in five years.

So, is there any truth to Henrik being better in the second half? And are there things that we should be looking out for now that he has almost 30 starts under his belt?

Let’s break down the last three years into halves and take a look.

(Note: Lundqvist was injured during the 2014-15 season, I split that year in half at January 3rd)

Pld= Pulled
InRlf= Entered game in relief

If we are dealing only with the goaltending statistics you can find on the back of hockey cards, it does appear that there is some truth to Lundqvist being better in the second half. Although it appears that last year was somewhat of an anomaly.

Lundqvist was both consistent and brilliant in the 2015-16 regular season. Which is probably why the Rangers finished that year tied with Minnesota for the fifth best 5v5 GA/G (1.57) in the NHL.

In each of the last three seasons Lundqvist’s save percentage has either dramatically improved or stayed the same in the second half of the season. Which some might find curious because the majority of his shutouts (in this sample size) have come in the first half of the season.

The scarcity of shutouts only makes Lundqvist’s second half 0.928 save percentage over the last three years that much more impressive. After he puts a new calendar up on his wall (and when the games matter more) Henrik plays better.

It’s also worth noting that eight of the last ten instances when Lundqvist was pulled in the last three years occurred in the first half of the season. This has likely influenced the optics of Hank being a slow starter.

As for the underlying numbers- the theory that Lundqvist is better (or at least just as good) in the second half of the year holds water.

So, with that out of the way let’s take a closer look into what’s gone wrong for Henrik in his 31 games and 29 starts this year.

First, we’ll dig into Lundqvist’s even strength numbers this year compared to the previous three seasons.

Lundqvist at 5v5

All data from corsica.hockey

Two numbers that jump off the page in the table above are Lundqvist’s low-danger and medium-danger save percentage. Those are not the numbers of a great or elite goaltender. They’re not even good. They’re bad.

This season 21 goaltenders who have played at least 1000 minutes have a better low-danger save percentage than Lundqvist does. And 26 goalies have better medium-danger save percentages. Yikes.

For context a goaltender with equivalent ES TOI to Lundqvist this year is Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck. Hellebuyck has a 98.54 LDSv% and a 91.54 MDSv% (both superior to Lundqvist) while facing just five fewer medium-danger shots than the Rangers’ franchise goaltender. The two goalies also have a nearly identical GSAA.

But there is a lot more going on here than Hank allowing too many bad goals.

To build on the context of Hellebuyck’s numbers, Lundqvist has faced 18 more high-danger chances than Hellebyuck this year and has a far superior HDSv%. In fact, Lundqvist’s HDSv% at evens is 1.7 percent higher than last year’s average among goaltenders with a minimum of 1000 minutes played.

The Rangers’ defense is not doing Henrik Lundqvist any favors.

This season Lundqvist is facing 3.26 shots on the rush per 60 minutes. If that seems high, that is because it is.

Only seven goaltenders (min. 1000 minutes) face rushes more often. Last season he faced 2.74 shots on the rush per hour. That’s nearly one and a half more shots on the rush per game. And the increase in that number is not Lundqvist’s doing, even if it directly impacts his stats and perceived performance.

There’s no doubt that Lundqvist has allowed too many soft goals this year (and he will be the first person to say it). Equally self-evident is the fact that the Rangers’ defense has, in many ways, failed their starting goaltender.

Another telling stat from Lundqvist’s even strength numbers this year is his GSAA (Goals Saved Above Average). GSAA has always been Henrik’s stat. He led the league in that metric last season. He also has the best GSAA over the last three years (prior to this season).

But this season things have been different. Much different.

In 31 games this season, Lundqvist has the 23rd-best GSAA among goaltenders who have played in at least 1000 minutes. That is a fall from a 36.34 GSAA to a -3.77 GSAA. Lundqvist is still keeping high-danger chances off the scoreboard like an elite goaltender, but he is allowing far too many low and medium-danger goals.

Lundqvist is facing shots coming from greater distances this year. But he’s also facing an elevated number of high-danger shots.

Speaking of shots, let’s take a look at where most of the shots that get to Lundqvist’s net have come from.

hockeyviz.com, Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath

Say, who plays on the right side of the Rangers’ blue line? Oh.

Next, let’s look at where the even strength goals against Lundqvist have been scored this year.

Chart from corsica.hockey (with altered orientation)

No major surprises here, the majority of the ES goals against Lundqvist this season have been scored on Steve Valiquette’s “Royal Road”. Although there are a few outliers that were clearly low-danger chances that Lundqvist should have stopped. In fact, he has already allowed two more low-danger goals this season than he did in 65 games last year.

That is very un-Lundqvist-like.

Something else that warrants our attention this year is just how good Lundqvist has been when the Rangers have been shorthanded.

The Rangers have gone from a 78.2 percent penalty kill in 2015-16 to an 82.3 percent penalty kill this season. And Lundqvist has been a big reason why.

Lundqvist at 4v5

All data from corsica.hockey

As great as Lundqvist’s shorthanded numbers are compared to his last two seasons it is also clear that the penalty killers in front of him have been better. Much better. Particularly in limiting high-danger chances.

Jesper Fast and Ryan McDonagh have markedly better 4v5 GA60 this season and Michael Grabner, who leads the Rangers’ in SH TOI/G, has the best 4v5 GA60 on the team. Fast has gone from a 108.44 SH CA/60 last year to an 88.87 SH CA/60 this season. And he is just the most dramatic example.

Your goalie has to be your penalty killer, but it certainly helps when your penalty killers limit medium and high-danger shots. Still, Lundqvist has been undeniably sharp on the PK, even though he rarely receives praise for it.

Some Rangers fans were quick to blame Lundqvist for this power play goal by van Riemsdyk on January 13th. Others point to the fact that Dan Girardi dropped to his knees and hung his goaltender out to dry.

What happens with Lundqvist’s even strength and shorthanded numbers in the second half of the season is worth keeping an eye on. They will play a crucial role in where the Rangers finish in the regular season standing. And, of course, they will also shape his reputation as a 35-year-old goaltender.

There’s no shortage of people, including Rangers fans, who seem eager to take away the King’s crown.

Does Lundqvist need more starts like Larry Brooks believes he does? Are analysts and fans who are influenced by Hank’s body of work searching for anything that offers a narrative other than this is what a nearly 35-year-old Lundqvist looks like? Will he bounce back in the second half or will the Rangers’ blue line hold him back?

We have no way of knowing. Only time will tell

What we do know is the Rangers need Lundqvist to rally. They need to hear the other half of the legend like they do every year. They need their King back.