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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Henrik Lundqvist is the Best Athlete in New York


The best professional athlete in New York heard his name chanted again Sunday at Madison Square Garden, though he had by his standards an average game. Henrik Lundqvist saw 26 shots from the Washington Capitals and stopped 24 of them. There were no breathtaking saves, no moments in which Lundqvist flashed such grace and athleticism that you wondered if he were more than human. He played well. The Rangers won again. Ho-hum.

For five games, the phenomenon that is Jeremy Lin has breathed life back into the Knicks. Once bound for a season of failure and unmet expectations, they have become a better basketball team—a winning basketball team—and a national curiosity because of him. But in the biggest sports town in the country, Lin is just one more figure casting a shadow over Lundqvist and what he is doing this season. The Rangers keep winning, keep establishing themselves as a favorite to win the Stanley Cup, and their goaltender is the reason for their revival.

So put aside the fun of Linsanity for a second, and consider this truth about Lundqvist and the Rangers: In the midst of the finest season of his seven-year career—one that already had established him as one of the NHL's elite goaltenders—Lundqvist is the best player in New York. Not the best hockey player. The best player, period. More than that, he's the most indispensable player in New York. No pro franchise in this city is so dependent on so accomplished an athlete.

There's no second baseman in Major League Baseball who can hit and field with the natural ease of the Yankees' Robinson Cano, yet according to the Baseball Writers Association of America, Cano wasn't the most valuable player on his own team last year. Curtis Granderson was. (And at their stages of their careers, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter are no longer as vital to the Yankees' fortunes as they once were.) Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire can be marvelous scorers. But the Knicks were going nowhere with them until Lin came along, and he has managed, in a week's time, to prove to 'Melo and Amar'e that there's more to basketball than deploying an array of dazzling one-on-one moves. The Jets' Darrelle Revis? Sorry. No cornerback covers better, but he can't stop an opposing quarterback from throwing the football to someone else. And opposing quarterbacks did just that against the Jets last season. A lot.

At this time, the only New York athlete who can approximate Lundqvist's talent and worth is Eli Manning, who recently completed the finest regular season of his career before winning his second Super Bowl. But bear in mind: The Giants were 7-7, on the precipice of missing the playoffs, until their defense stabilized itself. Manning had a terrific year, but he wouldn't be on his way to Disney World again had Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Michael Bolley not returned to the lineup in time.

By comparison, Lundqvist's impact on the Rangers exceeds Manning's on the Giants. Much of the credit for the Rangers' improvement from last season, when they clinched the Eastern Conference's eighth playoff spot on the regular season's final day, to this season has gone to coach John Tortorella and his emphasis on disciplined defensive play. Here's the thing, though: Tortorella emphasized defense in 2010-11, too, and he got pretty much identical results from his forwards and defensemen.

Per game, the Rangers this season are scoring the same number of goals, allowing the same number of shots on goal, blocking the same number of shots and affording their opponents the same number of power plays as they did last season. So why were they fortunate to be a playoff team last season, and why are they the class of their conference this season? The difference is Lundqvist's play. His save percentage has risen to .939—which, if he manages to maintain it, would set a league record—from .923. His goals-against average has fallen to 1.81 from 2.28. He leads the NHL in shutouts (with six so far), just as he did last season (with 11).

He has done all this while the noise created by the Giants' Super Bowl, the Jets' collapse, the Yankees' offseason and now Lin's emergence have drowned out his and the Rangers' steady success.

That his excellence has come amid such silence, though, doesn't make it less meaningful. If New York ends up celebrating another championship this summer, everyone already knows one thing about the parade route. It will start at the ice at Henrik Lundqvist's feet.

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