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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Lundqvist remains a constant


In the fast-paced world of professional sports change is the norm, whether from year-to-year, week-to-week, day-to-day, or, in the National Hockey League, from shift-to-shift.

However for the last five seasons the New York Rangers have greatly benefitted from one true constant, not only game-to-game, but one year after another.

“Hank is our most valuable player, our rock that we rely on,” Brandon Dubinsky said of 28-year-old goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. “We know that he is always back there ready to make the big save when we need it. He gives us our confidence.”

Since arriving on Broadway to start the 2005-06 season, Lundqvist has been consistently the Rangers best, and most reliable, player. He has recorded 30 wins or more in each of his first five NHL seasons, the first goalie in league history to do so, and has appeared in 70 or more games four years in a row.

As durable as he is skilled, Lundqvist provides the Rangers a certain comfort zone game-in and game-out. His coaches and teammates know what to expect every night with No. 30 between the pipes.

“I don’t worry about Hank at all,” stated Rangers head coach John Tortorella. “He is not only one of the best goaltenders in the world, he is as mentally tough as they come, and he’s a battler, a fighter. That’s what I love most about him, the way he competes every night.”

This past season Lundqvist appeared in a career-high 73 games, including the last 17 in a row as the Rangers desperately chased a playoff spot. Lundqvist ranked eighth in the league with a solid 2.38 goals against average, seventh with a .921 save percentage which was the second best mark of his NHL career so far, and tenth with 35 victories.

Perhaps even more important than his impressive statistics, Lundqvist carried the Blueshirts when the club struggled mightily to get its offense going through much of the year. On a nightly basis Lundqvist gave his team an excellent chance to win.

No better example of this can be found than the Swedish netminder’s sterling performance in the winner-take-all season finale against the Philadelphia Flyers down at the Wachovia Center. The Rangers were outshot 47-25, but Lundqvist turned in one sensational save after another, surrendering only a power play goal to Matt Carle over 65 minutes of action.

That the Rangers fell 2-1 in the shootout was in no way a reflection on Lundqvist, who was magnificent in defeat, prompting team captain Chris Drury to say afterwards, “I feel most bad for Henrik. He was sensational. I feel like we let him down.”

“I’m pretty happy with the way I played down the stretch,” said Lundqvist. “I think I gave us a chance to win every night. We didn’t make it (into the playoffs), but what makes me feel a little bit better is that I know I did everything I could, and everyone in here did, too. It just wasn’t enough, and we have to accept that. We have to be better next year. I have to be better.”

The final game of the season in Philly marked the 45th time during the 2009-10 campaign that Lundqvist allowed two goals or fewer, a truly remarkable number. It was also his fourth game with 40 or more saves on the season.

Not surprisingly Lundqvist was selected as the Rangers Most Valuable Player at the end of the season in a vote conducted by the Professional Hockey Writers Association. It marked the fourth year in a row that Lundqvist had received the honor, the first time in franchise history that a player secured the award four years straight. Only Hall-of-Fame defenseman Brian Leetch, who won the award a total of six times, has been named team MVP more often than Lundqvist.

“He is just unbelievable,” star winger Marian Gaborik said of Lundqvist. “Hank is so consistent, so reliable. He is definitely one of the best goaltenders in the whole world.”

Don’t expect the high praise, accolades, and awards to interfere with Lundqvist’s drive to win a Stanley Cup, however. The three-time Vezina Trophy finalist feels even more driven after the Blueshirts failed to make the post-season this year, the first time in his career that he is on the outside looking in at the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It is a position he does not like.

“Our goal as a club is to have a good year, but to have an even better playoffs,” explained Lundqvist. “It hurts right now (not being in the playoffs). I can’t even find the right words. It’s just so disappointing. We have to find a way to be better next year.”

Next season Tortorella hopes to cut back on the number of starts Lundqvist makes, not because his No. 1 goalie does not excel during the regular season, but more so because the plan is to play another two months in the playoffs.

That was the plan this year, too, but the course was altered when inexperienced rookies Chad Johnson and Matt Zaba were forced to share the role of Lundqvist’s back up, and the coaching staff was leery about playing them too often. Veteran Alex Auld arrived later in the season, but Tortorella felt the need to play Lundqvist every game what with the Rangers’ playoff hopes hanging in the balance at that point.

“Hank had a really good year,” explained Tortorella. “I’d really like to get him to 65 or so (games played), but I simply could not do it this year. You look at Stanley Cup winners, and that’s eventually what we are trying to get to, goalies who (play somewhat fewer games) are the guys who are winning (championships).”

No matter how many games he plays next season, Lundqvist is firmly entrenched as the Rangers’ No. 1 in net. And as such he has a straight-forward message for his teammates.

“Whoever is going to be here in September has to realize that we have to do much better because this is not where we want to be,” declared Lundqvist. “We expect more of ourselves. We want to be a good playoff team. That’s our goal.”

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