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Friday, December 30, 2011

New York, then the world: As exposure grows, Henrik Lundqvist keeps Cup in sights

ShareThis By Jesse Spector

NEW YORK—The Rangers do not have any hometown heroes on their roster, but that does not mean that they are lacking for New Yorkers. Being born here is not a necessity—to be a New Yorker is to be weave oneself into the fabric of the city.

That's the reason that the Madison Square Garden faithful embrace Sean Avery so thoroughly. The winger may have been born in Pickering, Ont., but he is a New Yorker. So, too, is Henrik Lundqvist.

“He’s been here a long time and has a lot of strong relationships in the city,” Avery told Sporting News. “They certainly love him here. It’s different for him because he’s a goalie and they’re all just super weird and in their own world, so it’s not as visible as maybe somebody else, but he’s definitely, I would consider him a New Yorker, and I don’t think he’s planning on leaving when he’s done playing.

“He’s the King. He wears great suits, drives fancy cars and looks like a supermodel. He’s pretty much everything that I would think a hockey player would want to be.”

That includes Lundqvist’s on-ice accomplishments. A two-time NHL leader in shutouts, including with last season's 11, as well as a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, the Swedish goaltender may be leading the Rangers into the Winter Classic in the midst of his best season; Lundqvist has a 15-7-4 record, and his .936 save percentage and 1.95 goals-against average well outpace the top marks of what has already been a stellar career.

Lundqvist's status as one of the Winter Classic's marquee performers will mean wide exposure to casual hockey fans—something he has missed out on, considering that he has never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs. A deeper run is expected this season—Lundwvist has never had a more talented Rangers team in front of him. The 29-year-old is ready for that, though as much as playing in New York increases fame and scrutiny, the city also offers plenty of respite from all that stardom entails.

“The people that you run into, maybe half of them are from somewhere else,” Lundqvist said. “They’re not aware of what’s going on with the Rangers or hockey in general. You can live a pretty normal life. Sometimes people recognize you, but there’s so many people that don’t follow hockey or don’t even live in New York—they’re just here for a visit. It’s a good place to blend in. You still want to play in a city where people care and you have a big fan base, which we do. It’s great that at the same time, you can live a normal life and be relaxed.”

For most people in New York, normal does not include jam sessions with John McEnroe, as chronicled on HBO, but such are the perks of Lundqvist’s gig.

He has earned them. In 237 games since the start of the 2008-09 season, Lundqvist has allowed more than three goals on 39 occasions. Of the 37 NHL goalies to play at least 100 games over the past three and a half seasons, only Tim Thomas has had a lower percentage of bad nights, with 28 games out of 177 in which he allowed four or more goals. All Thomas did last season was win the Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophies in the process becoming a demigod in New England.

“The difference between the top five goalies in the league and the rest of the league is very minimal,” said Martin Biron, the Rangers’ veteran backup. “It’s just the consistency in the goalie. When everybody’s at their best, they’re on the same platform. Those top five goalies, what they do, they consistently bring their A-plus game. A-plus game, A-plus game, A-plus game. That’s what makes them the top. So, yes, (Lundqvist) is one of those five guys that bring it every night, and he is—I play with him, so I would say he is the best in the league. The difference with him is he’s not just at his best one out of three games, or two out of four games. He’s at his best every game. That’s what separates him from a lot of other goalies.”

What allows Lundqvist to achieve that separation is what is behind the mask, and behind his piercing blue eyes. It is not as evident during games as it is afterward.

Lundqvist comes into the Rangers’ locker room and sits in reflection for several minutes while reporters fill their notebooks and recorders with quotes from his teammates. He will answer every question, but only when he is ready, only after he has processed his latest performance. It is a reflection of the mental aspect of his game, and his life, that sets Lundqvist apart.

“He’s been gifted with a level of focus that’s much deeper than anyone I’ve played with,” Avery said. “As he’s gotten older, he got married, got a new business manager in his life—all of these things help. As you get older and life gets more complicated, you still have to shut everything else out and worry about the game, and he’s mastered that, for sure.”

Lundqvist noted those emergent complexities in an evolving life as he talked about living “in a bubble” for his first couple of seasons in the NHL after coming over from the Swedish Elite League. He has popped out now, and become part of the city where he plies his trade—not just an employee on location, but a New Yorker.

“New York, people are busy here,” Lundqvist said. “Everybody’s going somewhere. It’s not just hanging around. It’s a tough city. Tough in a good way. It’s a challenge. People are working hard, and they’re on the way somewhere—work, or just life.”

In a city where everyone is on the move, where is Lundqvist going?

“I hope I’m on my way to the Cup.”

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