It’s been a charmed season for Henrik Lundqvist both on and off the ice.
It all started what seemed like a lifetime ago in Goteborg, Sweden, when he and the Rangers played an exhibition game against his former team, the Frolunda Indians. Not only was he honored before that game, but it gave him yet another chance to go head-to-head against his twin brother Joel, who captains the SEL club.
Add to that 24/7 and the Winter Classic, where he made that late-game save on Daniel Briere’s penalty shot; being selected to the All-Star Game and being given the “A” for Team Alfredsson, helping his fellow Swede draft his team; coming further to the forefront as a spokeman for the Garden Of Dreams Foundation, for which he launched a hat and t-shirt line to raise money for the charity. This week, he became the “cover boy” for a regional version of Sports Illustrated, highlighting their NHL playoff preview.
But it will feel like it was all for naught should he not backstop the Rangers deep into the playoffs. It’s the biggest knock against him – that he can’t get it done when it counts most. For all of his stellar numbers in the regular season (career – 252-155-54 (43 shutouts), .920 SV%, 2.27 GAA), they have dipped once the postseason arrived (15-20 (3 shutouts), .909 SV%, 2.60 GAA). In his five previous trips to the playoffs, he’s only won one series, a 4-0 sweep of the Atlanta Thrashers in 2007.
Though he just turned 30 earlier this month and is now in the prime of his career, he in cognizant that the clock is ticking for him to add the Stanley Cup to his resume. So, is this the season he finally sheds that reputation? Here are a few reasons why it very well might be.
Successful Execution Of The Goalie Rotation Plan.
Last season, a Derek Stepan shot that fractured Martin Biron’s collarbone in practice on trade deadline day 2010 meant John Tortorella had to scrap the “rest Lundqvist” plan that was in place. Lundqvist played a total of 68 games last year, the lowest of his career at that point. He made 26 straight starts to end that season, as they were once again in a dog fight just to make the playoffs. He also made all 5 starts in the postseason as well, adding up to 31 straight.
Despite some shaky goaltending late this season, Biron actually went 12-6-2 for the Rangers. Last time a Rangers goalie not named Lundqvist reached double-digit wins? It was Kevin Weekes in 2005-06, Lundqvist’s rookie season (he went 14-14-3 in 32 games). Even playing a season-high 10 straight down the stretch, Lundqvist played in the fewest games since that rookie year (62) and set a career-high in wins (39). He also posted personal bests in save percentage (.930) and goals against average (1.97) even with his play coming back to earth over the last 2 months. His 8 shutouts also made him the only goaltender to appear in top 5 in all of the major goaltending statistics and makes him a strong candidate to not only earn his 4th Vezina nomination in 7 years, but maybe finally get the chance to take home that hardware. A lighter regular season workload should ideally mean there’s more left in the tank physically to make a playoff run.
The Team In Front Of Him Is Relatively Healthy.
Or as healthy as it can be after 82 games. That injury to Biron put more of a burden on Lundqvist, but injuries overall took their toll on the team last year. Lack of scoring and trouble on special teams were part of the reason the Rangers fell in five to the Washington Capitals but losing the heart and soul of the team, Ryan Callahan, to an ankle fracture in the closing days of the season all but sealed their fate. Coming into this series, they are not missing any of the major components that got them to this point. The only major injury that is sidelining a regular is the concussion of defenseman Michael Sauer, something he’s been dealing with since December. A healthy Sauer would be an asset to an already solid defense, but players like Anton Stralman and Stu Bickel have been able to plug some of the holes left by the absence. Defenseman Steve Eminger is still trying to work his way back from an ankle injury. Aside from them, it’s all hands on deck ready to go tonight against the Ottawa Senators.
Not Only Is It Healthy, It’s An Improvement From Seasons Past.
A goaltender can get hot and carry a team deep (see Halak, Jaroslav circa 2010), but it generally takes all 24 men who dress to lift that beautiful trophy in June. Back as a rookie in 2005-06, the only serious offensive weapon the Rangers had was Jaromir Jagr, and once he separated his shoulder trying to take a swipe at then-Devil Scott Gomez, that was pretty much the end of him being an threat. In the 4-game sweep, the Rangers mustered a total of 4 goals to the Devils’ 17. The defense consisted of the likes of Marek Malik, Darius Kasparaitis, the late-season acquisition Sandis Ozolinsh and Rangers fan favorite Tom Poti. Not exactly a group that will instill a whole lot of confidence that it can get things done.
Marian Gaborik bounced back this year, putting in 41 goals and Callahan adding a career-high of 29. Unfortunately, players like Brandon Dubinsky and Brian Boyle saw their offensive numbers fall off from last year. Even with the addition of Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin, their goals scored per game average actually went down slightly (from 2.73 to 2.71). Should the Rangers get deep in this series and find they’re searching for additional offensive pop, newly signed Chris Kreider will be available to insert in the lineup.
Dubinsky and Boyle have been somewhat AWOL offensively, they’ve made contributions defensively. The team as a whole blocks shots relentlessly, reducing the number of pucks that make it to the net. Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh have embraced their roles as defensive stalwarts. Michael Del Zotto has bounced back. Marc Staal is slowly coming back after missing half the season. Goals against per game dipped from last season, going from 2.38 last year to 2.22 this year. It’s a collaborative effort, with Lundqvist as the last line of defense.
The team didn’t get a drastic makeover from last year’s squad, but tweaked it by adding Brad Richards and Mike Rupp. It has allowed for a sense of familiarity with each other and growing more comfortable within Tortorella’s defense-first system. Call-ups from the AHL, where that same system is used, has allowed call-ups like John Mitchell and Carl Hagelin to make a smooth jump the the NHL. There’s that old cliche that familiarity breeds contempt, but in this case it has allowed the Rangers to form a cohesive group that plays hard for each other.
It’s been a pretty good year to be “The King”. It’d be an even better one for Lundqvist, his teammates and the Rangers faithful, if he can exorcise his playoff demons once and for all and he team ends the 18-year Stanley Cup drought this June.
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About the Author: Likes: Hockey, the New York Rangers, King Henrik, singing the Rangers goal song, "The Save", the sound skates make against ice, heckling Marty Brodeur. Dislikes: 3-point games, front-office mismanagement, Denis Potvin, overpriced arena beer. Interested? Follow me on Twitter: @CC_927