TORONTO -- If you looked down at the end of the Rangers' bench Saturday night, you would have seen an unusual sight -- Henrik Lundqvist, smiling, baseball cap perched on top his head, watching the video scoreboard, basically hanging out.
You have to wonder whether he needed directions to the backup's perch. After all, this marked the first time this season that Lundqvist did not start and finish a New York Rangers game.
If Lundqvist took advantage of the rare break in his routine to empty his mind and relax -- that was his plan, he said -- it provided an opportune moment to opine on just how good Lundqvist is and just where New York would be without him.
One longtime scout and manager said the answer is simple: The Rangers would be lost without Lundqvist.
The Rangers entered Saturday's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs cozily ensconced in fifth place in the Eastern Conference with an 8-7-1 record. This in spite of the fact the Rangers entered play Saturday having scored the fewest goals in the NHL, 31. That's right. A lineup that boasts five-time NHL scoring champion Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan, Scott Gomez, Chris Drury and Martin Straka is dead last in scoring.
That New York hasn't been buried in the standings, the scout said, is thanks almost solely to the heroics of Lundqvist. In 12 of the 16 straight games Lundqvist started this season, he held opponents to two or fewer goals. Which is good because the Rangers have scored two or fewer goals 11 times, 12 if you count Saturday's 3-2 shootout victory. Before Saturday's action, Lundqvist was second in shutouts (4), fourth in GAA (1.62), fifth in save percentage (.940) and tied for second in wins (8).
A Vezina Trophy nominee in his first two NHL seasons, Lundqvist seems headed toward a third nomination. And you know what they say about the charm of the third time.
"As many have said in the past, if your goaltending's in place, you've got a chance every night, and Henrik has certainly done that for us as we've tried to shore up our game and become a more complete team," coach Tom Renney said.
"He's the one guy that's been a constant night after night. As much as we've really sort of fought the frustration and all that rhetoric that goes along with not scoring as much as we'd like to, he really has been good in goal and given us reason to believe we're a decent defensive team."
So, how good is Lundqvist?
Well, a former NHLer and multiple Stanley Cup winner was overheard at a recent Rangers game gesturing at Lundqvist and saying, "There's your next MVP."
Not team MVP -- NHL MVP. As in Hart Trophy winner.
Look around the NHL. Is there a player more important to his team than Lundqvist is to the Rangers? Henrik Zetterberg, Jarome Iginla and Sidney Crosby would all get consideration, but Lundqvist's importance to his team is more stunning given the problems the team has had introducing new talent Drury and Gomez to the lineup.
"I think, coming into this season, people looked at our team and our lineup as an offensive juggernaut, and I think the way things have gone for the first 16 games, it's been the total opposite," with the focus being on sound defensive hockey, New York defenseman Paul Mara said, "and Henrik's the backbone of that."
Given the media scrutiny that would have circled the Rangers had Lundqvist not been stellar, it's entirely possible the calls for significant change -- whether in terms of coaching or personnel -- would have been much more insistent.
In a little more than two NHL seasons, Lundqvist has evolved from simply a great performer to a presence in the veteran-filled Rangers dressing room.
"It's kind of fun to watch, actually. Certainly, [he's] very focused," Renney said. "[His] concentration level is really high. He's almost oblivious to everything else that's going on around him, other than his own preparation, which is good. But what's happening now is this evolution of a presence in our room. Guys just feel really good about the fact that he's our guy.
"Certainly, his performance speaks volumes, naturally, but just to see him emerge as a voice, not real talkative, but just that presence. And the charisma that goes along with leadership. And he's certainly one of our leaders," Renney added.
Lundqvist is big, athletic and technically very sound, the scout said, rarely flopping around a la Dominik Hasek. And Lundqvist appears to be absolutely unflappable, an intangible that has been crucial to the Rangers thus far.
"Off the ice, he's one of the best guys in the locker room," Mara said. "He's great to hang around with, [has a] great personality, [is] easygoing, but at the same time, he's extremely focused like probably no other goalie I've ever seen before."
The predicament facing Renney becomes just how much to use the Swedish star.
At Saturday night's Hall of Fame game, backup Steve Valiquette was terrific, turning aside 32 of 34 shots plus two shootout attempts by the Leafs. But Valiquette is 30 and is no more or less than a bona fide NHL backup. And if the Rangers continue to struggle to generate offense, the temptation to use Lundqvist in long stretches will persist. Indeed, Renney might not have any choice.
But is there a danger in having Lundqvist play 75 games or more, which he is on pace to reach?
"Working with goaltending coach Benoit Allaire, I look for cues now in Henrik's game that might suggest we might be stretching this now, that he needs a break," Renney said.
In fact, Renney's thinking is that he might not even consult Lundqvist, just tell him he's taking a break. Just not too often.
As for Lundqvist, he admitted he was starting to feel the wear and tear.
"I could definitely feel it's been a lot of games," Lundqvist said. "It was Tom's call, but it was funny, we were talking and it's hard for me to say I want to step aside because I want to play."
Ideally, he'd like to play about 70 games, he said.
"I felt good about last year, play around 70 games. But at the same time I have to deserve my starts. It's not like I can go out and say I want to play 70 games if I'm not playing well," Lundqvist said.
That doesn't appear to be an issue.
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