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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Lundsanity's No Passing Fad


"LINQVIST!" may have been the nadir.

It was an innocent gesture—a mid-February advertisement by the MSG Network, promoting a Rangers hockey game and spoofing the breathless mania over Henrik Lundqvist's Madison Square Garden neighbor, Knicks point guard and underdog sensation Jeremy Lin.

Cute, right? But also a little desperate.

Because what Henrik Lundqvist built in New York was the exact opposite of a wild overnight craze. He is 30 now. He has played here for seven seasons, developing a reputation for consistency and unfussy brilliance. Even when the Rangers staggered and underachieved, there was always Henrik. Confident, steady, reliable.

He was not "Lundsanity." He was utterly sane.

He is in his moment now. It's not as if Lundqvist has been deprived of accolades—a breakout star as a rookie, he's been a premier NHL goaltender for some time, a three-time All-Star who won an Olympic gold medal with Sweden in 2006. He has an eight-figure contract. The fashion magazines have celebrated his rugged handsomeness. He is not unknown.

The 2011-12 regular season may have been Lundqvist's finest. Through 62 starts he finished with a goals-against average of 1.97. He has won at least 30 games in his first seven seasons, a record to start a career. Once more he is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goalie, and a Hart Trophy MVP candidate, as well. The Journal's Mike Sielski argued persuasively this winter that Lundqvist—not Eli Manning, not Darrelle Revis, not any Yankee—may be the best athlete in New York.

But nothing shapes and sharpens a pro athlete's career like the postseason, and Lundqvist is thriving. He has already steered the Rangers through consecutive Game 7 wins over Ottawa and Washington, the deepest playoff run of his career. On Monday night, in a loud reprise of the famous Rangers-Devils 1994 conference final, he shut out New Jersey 3-0 in Game 1.

It was the fifth shutout of Lundqvist's playoff life, a sweet start to a delicious conflict. Even better, Lundqvist has a legendary foil across the ice: Martin Brodeur, the 40-year-old certain Hall of Famer and another unpretentious hockey star whose greatness has been swamped in a distracted sports metropolis.

The Rangers have a grip on New York now. It was a little bizarre this winter and spring, as they soared toward the best record in the conference, only to watch the ragged and volatile Knicks take all the headlines with their various, overdramatic ascensions and implosions. What did the Rangers have to do? Have a coach run screaming out of town? Punch a fire extinguisher?

All they needed was to keep winning. The Knicks are gone now, leaving a trail of broken glass in Miami. The Yankees and Mets are still in their nascent stages. Not even Tebow can eclipse Rangers-Devils.

But attention is not what these Rangers are about. After repeated failures with fancy, boldface signings, this is a low-profile team purposefully constructed to be a team. Lundqvist is as close as the roster gets to a celebrity. But he is not a heat-seeker. This is not 1994, with the magnetic Mark Messier driving the blue shirts toward the Stanley Cup.

Linsanity, meanwhile, is a foggy memory. The thrilling point guard was hurt in late March and missed the end of the season and the playoffs. Lin's future in New York is murky. The number 17 T-shirts, so stylish in mid-winter, are remaindered at half-price.

"Lundsanity" survives, but there's nothing trendy about it. New York may be just waking up, but Henrik Lundqvist is doing what Henrik Lundqvist does. This is not a short-lived phenomenon. The 15th minute has come and gone. The number 30 jersey is full price. This feels here to stay.

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