Rangers must capitalize on Lundqvist’s prime while they still can

John Dundon

Henrik Lundqvist first star 2-21

Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

As the Rangers prepare to embark on their quest for the teams elusive fifth Stanley Cup, their one constant over the past 10 years in Henrik Lundqvist is once again at peak form.

On a night following a 1-0 shutout win against the Detroit Red Wings, Lundqvist put what the final minutes of a 0-0 game feel like from his perspective. “The last 10 minutes of the game you definitely know the next goal wins… I know I need to be perfect.” It’s a situation the Rangers veteran net minder has become more than comfortable with over the years as a Ranger. Lundqvist has played in more big games and high pressure situations, in the last three seasons especially, than most goalies do in their entire careers.

I’ve often said that being a goalie is unlike anything else in sports. You’re a part of the team, but it’s really just you alone out there. You have more influence on the game than anyone else on the ice. Only the highest level of focus, athleticism and anticipation will allow you to be successful. It’s a position that is unique in the fact that you can be an eraser for when the team is outplayed as a whole. The goalie is one of the few positions in sports that will often times single handedly determine the outcomes of events.

Some goalies have it easier than others. Some goalies get to play second fiddle to the Jonathon Toews’ or the Patrick Kanes of the team. Some goalies can just be “good enough” and have success. Lundqvist, unfortunately for him, is not one of those goalies.

The Rangers superstar knows that for his team to be the last one left on the ice in June, he’ll have to be better than just “good enough”. If Lundqvist was ever expected to just be “good enough,” he would no doubt have raised the Cup by now. But the situation Lundqvist has been in, and has agreed to put himself in for the next handful of years, instead calls for Lundqvist to be the man who leads the way for a Rangers club that has struggled to provide Lundqvist with the support he’s needed in the teams trips to the promised land.

If Lundqvist is average, the Rangers squirm. If he is bad, they don’t stand a chance. Even when he’s nearly perfect, he sometimes isn’t enough.

The knock on Lundqvist from outsiders is that he “isn’t clutch” or “never makes the big save.”  But the critics of Lundqvist haven’t been around long enough to see just how many times the same story has unfolded. It’s the same story that unfolded in last season’s game seven of the conference final, when Lundqvist held the Lighting scoreless until a seeing eye backhand shot squeaked through Lundqvist in the third period.  For those of us who have been around, we know what Lundqvist brings to the table: elite goaltending, both in terms of statistics and in terms of big moment performances.

The numbers speak for themselves: he’s 6-2 in his last eight game seven starts. His six game seven wins are tied for the most in NHL history among goaltenders. His Numbers are kind of stupid good: .956 save percentage, 1.02 GAA. He has given up more than one goal just one time over those past eight games, which was last season when the Rangers lost a heartbreaker to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final. Lundqvist in elimination games is like using a cheat code, because he’s he is 10-1 in his career facing elimination at Madison Square Garden, with a goals against average just over 1.00.  Lundqvist has made an annual habit of beating some of the best players in the game in seven game series’ (ask Sid, Malkin, and Ovi about Lundqvist and they’ll tell you the same).

henrik lundqvist pad save 5-10

Henrik Lundqvist makes a spectacular pad save on Troy Brouwer in the second round of the 2014-15 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

And yet, he is still dubbed as the guy who can’t make the big save. It’s a lazy narrative, and it is not true.

Lundqvist has had to carry a Rangers team that has historically had trouble scoring in the post season, when checking gets tighter and the stars need to put the puck in the net. That hasn’t happened for the Rangers ever in Lundqvist’s tenure. It didn’t happen with Marian Gaborik, and it hasn’t happened with Rick Nash.

But alas, Lundqvist is well on his way to his sixth consecutive post season berth, his 10th in 11 seasons with the Rangers. This is what goaltending is all about: consistency.

Lundqvist has been the best goaltender of the post lockout era, and there isn’t a close second quite frankly. Hank is top five all time in career save percentage. He is the only goaltender with 30 wins in every full season he’s played in his career. He has won the Vezina trophy and been nominated too many times to count. In the words of Howie Rose, Lundqvist “has one more hill to climb, baby.”

When the Rangers went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014, I’ll be the first to admit that after a THIRD crushing overtime loss in the five game series, watching Lundqvist hold back tears in front of reporters was too much to bear. It had almost been like I was more upset for Hank than I was that my favorite team just lost the Stanley Cup, and I’d bet I’m not alone on that front.

When Lundqvist does finally get to hoist the holy grail of hockey, it will lead to a collective sigh among Ranger fans that has been building up for almost a decade. For now, though, I can say with no bias in my voice that there is not a player in the NHL as deserving of a Stanley Cup than Henrik Lundqvist, I will go to the grave with that.

We can still marvel at what Lundqvist has done is his career and will continue to do even with no ring, that is allowed. He is well on his way to holding every major team record for a goaltender. He already holds several individual records as well. But to verify Lundqvist’s stock as one of the game’s all-time greats, his team mates will have to step up and not rely on their goalie to win consecutive games facing elimination every spring.

Lundqvist, who turns 34 in the coming weeks, doesn’t feel like he has the luxury of “next year” as he may have had in the early part of his career. He knows it, the fans know it, and Rangers management knows it. Despite their best efforts, the Rangers front office has not been able to land that difference maker outside of the goal crease that is such an integral part of winning the Cup.

henrik lundqvist profile 4-2

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

For now, Lundqvist will continue to put up elite numbers, just as he has all of his career. He is ranked first in the league in even strength save percentage. He has been nearly unbeatable at MSG, losing only one game in regulation since Thanksgiving on home ice. He has dominated lately in the wake of losing the team’s top producers on both offense and defense. His work needs to be appreciated, maybe even marveled at.

Henrik has taken different teams and found ways to win games with them for over a decade. When the young Rangers were headed by Tom Renney in the early stages of his career, Lundqvist was broke out into stardom and lead the Rangers to multiple post season berths. When John Tortorella took the reins, and on the back of a Vezina winning season from #30, the Rangers took a step towards perennial contention. Fast forward to now and Lundqvist, having played behind an aging group of “top four” defenseman who have looked really bad at times this season, has the Rangers one point out of second place in the eastern conference attempting to make their fourth conference final appearance in five years.

He is the epitome of consistency. He is often time victorious in the face of adversity. He has but one more step to conquer.

It has been a privilege getting to watch Lundqvist go to work every night for the past decade, and it will be appreciated until the day he hangs them up. Let’s just hope he has some hardware for his mantle when that day comes.

Posted on February 22, 2016, in In the Crease and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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