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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Season Henrik Stopped Everything


Lundqvist's 11 Shutouts for the Rangers Place Him Among the Team's Elite; 33 Bottles of Cabernet


GREENBURGH, N.Y.—During a drill at practice last week, Rangers forward Brandon Dubinsky stood in the crease and took two whacks at the puck before sliding it under goaltender Henrik Lundqvist into the net. Dubinsky raised his arms and yelled, "Yeah! Woo!" Lundqvist slashed at his ankles.

Minutes later, after Dubinsky fired a wrist shot and Lundqvist whipped his left arm upward to glove the puck, Dubinsky stick-tapped him on the pads and said, "Nice save." Lundqvist, still raw over the exaggerated celebration, didn't respond.

"I complimented you," Dubinsky said to him later in the dressing room, "and you act like a [bleeping bleep] about it."

In truth, Lundqvist doesn't dislike his teammates; he just can't abide allowing goals, even in practice. "A little competition never hurt," he said.

But if dealing with a flash of frustration from Lundqvist is the price of playing in front of a goaltender capable of carrying them to the Stanley Cup, the Rangers long ago learned to live with such small sacrifices.

He is finishing off the finest of his six seasons with the Rangers—one that stands among the best of any goaltender in the franchise's 85 years. His 11 shutouts lead the NHL and are two short of a team record that was set in 1929. His .923 save percentage is the highest of his career. He has started the team's last 24 games, a streak that began in the first week of February.

In fact, Lundqvist could turn out to be the most important player in this year's Eastern Conference playoffs, for his excellence could counteract the Rangers' main weakness: They struggle to put the puck in the net.

Of the 16 NHL teams that were playoff-eligible through Monday, only six have scored fewer goals than the Rangers, who were tied for sixth place in the East. "I shudder to think how poor their record would have been without him," analyst and broadcaster Bill Clement said.

So Lundqvist looms like a specter for any potential playoff opponent. After all, the term "hot goaltender" has become a cliché in the NHL this time of year, so frequently have teams advanced thanks to outstanding performances from their goalies. "It's a huge factor," Rangers forward Ryan Callahan said, "and in the room we have the utmost confidence in him."

Three times already, Lundqvist has been a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the league's best goaltender. He would seem assured of being a finalist again this season, though he pointed out two factors that have helped his candidacy.

First, because teams generally have become more defensive-minded over the last few years, Lundqvist said, they "try to create offense from nothing," throwing the puck on net from all angles, forcing goaltenders to make more saves but not necessarily more high-quality saves.

Lundqvist's theory is correct. Over the last decade, both the average number of shots attempted per game and a goal-tender's average save percentage have increased slightly, according to Stats Inc., a firm that tracks statistical trends in sports.

Second, the Rangers are fourth in the NHL in blocked shots. "That's always great for a goalie," Lundqvist said, "when you know the team is going to be there for you."

As a show of gratitude, Lundqvist has bought three bottles of red wine for his teammates after each of his 11 shutouts this season. ("Usually a nice Cab," he said). The Rangers hold raffles to determine who will take home each bottle. Lundqvist, whose contract with the Rangers pays him $6.875 million annually through the 2013-14 season, estimated that he has spent close $2,500 this season on Cabernet.

"I joked about having to sell one of my cars to afford all the wine," he said.

Despite those goalie-friendly trends and his teammates' contributions, Lundqvist, 29, remains the star by which the Rangers steer.

He is their best and most recognizable player, employing a style of play "unique to him" and wielding the tools of his trade to their greatest advantage, said former NHL goaltender Kevin Weekes, who backed up Lundqvist for two years in New York.

He stays deep within his net, relying on his reflexes to stop the puck instead of moving out of his crease to cut down any shooting angles. It is a demanding, almost arrogant way to tend goal, as if Lundqvist were challenging his own athleticism. "It's almost as though he thought he couldn't get scored on," Weekes said.

Two years ago, Lundqvist began wearing a more flexible catching glove that helped him control the puck better; his old one was so stiff that the puck often bounced out, as if the glove's pocket were the face of a tennis racket. He straps his pads to his legs in such a way that they rotate when he drops into a butterfly-like stance, allowing him to seal off any shot along the ice.

"There's nobody in the NHL better at taking care of the bottom 16 inches of the net than Henrik Lundqvist," said Steve McKichan, a former NHL goaltending coach.

Even a bad night for Lundqvist reaffirms how vital he is to the Rangers' fortunes. In a 6-2 loss to the Islanders last Thursday, for example, Lundqvist surrendered five goals, and head coach John Tortorella pulled him from the game after the second period.

It was the last of three consecutive losses by the Rangers—a late-season slump similar to the one that cost them a playoff berth last year. Yet Lund-qvist's postgame wardrobe alone refuted any suggestion that his confidence might have been waning. He emerged to answer questions clad in a black pinstripe suit and a belt with a silver "H" for a buckle.

"You just have to move on,'' he said.

Three days later, in a 3-2 victory in Philadelphia, Lundqvist stopped 32 of 34 shots, keeping the Rangers in control of their playoff fate.

Only one Rangers goaltender, Mike Richter in 1994, has won a Stanley Cup in the last 70 years, and the team has reached the playoffs' second round only twice in Lundqvist's career.

For a goal-tender who has won an Olympic gold medal and two Swedish Elite League championships, the lack of a long NHL postseason run seems a stark blank line on his resume.

"That's why you play," he said. "You want to be there one day, just to bring the Cup to New York."

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