by Paul West
Over the past couple of years, Henrik Lundqvist has shown us glimpses of his future, which is sooner or later the future of every great player: decline, hopefully not precipitous, and eventually eclipsing into the haze of fond memory.
Tonight, he showed us a glimpse of the player who may go down as the greatest goaltending ace in franchise history.
The Rangers won a game tonight, by a 4-2 score, in which they were outshot almost threefold in the first period. They won a game that, all things considered, they arguably didn’t deserve to win. They won this game because future Hall of Famer Henrik Lundqvist made one ridiculous, improbable save after another, holding steady against a barrage of shots on proverbially tilted ice. He kept the game scoreless for the entire first period, which ended with the Rangers up 1-0 on a precision shot by Artemi Panarin; he continued to hold steady all night stopping 45 of 47 shots with both goals coming on fluky bounces. These weren’t floaters from the faceoff circle, either: they were quality chances, from all angles and frequently in close, many of which were virtually gift-wrapped by a defense which struggled to contain a furious Hurricanes forecheck.
Of course, that’s what aces often do: help their teams win games in which they were generally outplayed. Elite goalies have been singlehandedly deciding games since the speed of NHL games hit a new gear a couple of generations ago; and many a playoff run and Stanley Cup title has been fueled by a netminder who ‘stood on his head’ while the crew in front of them figured it out. The Rangers’ 2015 run to the very last game of the season was largely the result of Henrik bailing out his defense, or holding serve behind a stalling offense; and if you recall those days, or the performances of Mike Richter in 1994, tonight may have felt like a flashback.
Surprised? He, for one, isn’t. He has, indeed, showed signs of decline in recent years, mainly due to the incredible wear & tear of his illustrious career; but he was also a standout at least year’s All Star Game, and he’s still got plenty left in the tank. Due to the aforementioned wear and tear and the fact that Henrik will be 38 in March, coach David Quinn has openly talked about managing his ice time to prevent slumps; still, Henrik has pushed for more stats of late. This is likely for three reasons: avoidance of rust; the battle against time; and the search for the kind of hot streak he’s still proven himself capable of when he gets on a run of strong outings. This is a delicate balance at this point in his career, and Quinn is right to keep an eye on his minutes and health; but he would be wrong to let exaggerated rumors of Lundqvist’s decline pressure him to keep his ace off the ice.
Through every high and low of the past few seasons, Lundqvist has continued to embody grace under pressure both on and off the ice–exemplified in tonight’s postgame interview, in which he spoke of looking to find his groove while openly admitting his exhaustion. Henrik Lundqvist remains the same as he’s been for a decade: tenaciously competitive, yet meditatively calm; secure in his greatness, yet blessed with the wisdom and philosophical bent to admit weakness and even the effects of age; and, with all due respect to Mika Zibanjead, the spiritual leader of the New York Rangers and one of the keys to their success. He’s also not quite done yet.