By BARBARA BARKER
Henrik Lundqvist is the most recognizable face on the Rangers, and one of the more recognizable faces on the New York sports scene, which isn't an easy feat for a guy who wears a mask to work.
He has two Olympic medals, more wins than any Rangers goaltender ever and a team-record 50 shutouts. He signed a seven-year contract extension earlier this season that likely will mean he will end his career in New York, with his jersey hanging in the Madison Square Garden rafters soon after.
Yet, as the Rangers prepare to open the playoffs in the coming days, Lundqvist has been doing some thinking about the one thing he doesn't have.
"I just think, for me personally, the biggest goal I have left with my hockey is to win the Stanley Cup," he said. "For me, it's exciting to think about it. It's a challenge for me and for all of us here. It's why we play."
At 32, Lundqvist is playing for his legacy. In December, he signed on to be the face of the franchise for the rest of the decade, which makes each of his playoffs increasingly important. Will Lundqvist finish his career in New York as the Patrick Ewing of the Rangers, a great player who may never be truly recognized for his greatness because he never won it all? Or will he join the beloved ranks of current New York champions like Eli Manning and Derek Jeter?
The concept that a championship, or lack there of, can define a player's legacy is one with which Lundqvist sometimes struggles.
"Sometimes it surprises me a little bit when people look at championships," he said. "We're not playing tennis, we're not playing golf. It's a team sport. You need to be good but you also need to be a part of a great team. You need to have timing as well when you play a team sport. You get on a team that's on a roll, obviously goalies play a big part, but again it's not tennis or golf. It's not just you. It's about getting everything to work together at the right time and just go from there."
Still, those who know Lundqvist well say he is very conscious that if he wants to ever pull ahead of former Rangers goaltender Mike Richter, he needs to win the Stanley Cup like Richter did with the 1994 team.
"No one really remembers who the finalists were, they remember who won the cup and who their goaltender was," said Martin Biron, a former Rangers backup goalie who now works as a MSG analyst. "In this market especially, there are a lot of very successful people who support this team. They value winning the championship way on top of anything else. That's just the reality of it, and Henrik understands that and wants to win as badly as anyone else . . . I'd say it's at the top of his bucket list."
Could he have a chance this season?
With the way the Rangers are rolling into the playoffs, some have labeled them a dark horse contender in Eastern Conference, one of the handful of teams that could challenge the Boston Bruins. It seems to be coming together at the right time for the Lundqvist and the Rangers, after surviving a difficult start to the season. Forty games in, the Rangers were 19-19-2 and Lundqvist had a 2.77 goals-against average. Heading into Saturday night's game, the Rangers are 26-12-3 and Lundqvist's goals-against average has fallen to 2.36 for the season.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said he cannot overstate the impact Lundqvist's second half of the season has had on the team.
"When you get the goaltending, it rubs off on the rest of your game, whether it's your defensive play, your penalty killing of five-on-five play," Vigneault said. "If you know that if you make a mistake, your goaltender is going to bail you out, it's easier to play. Ever since Hank found his game, we've been a better team. In the second half, we've been one of the better teams in the NHL."
Yet, it wasn't easy getting to that point. Lundqvist had flourished under former Rangers coach John Tortorella and his defensive-oriented system, winning seven straight team MVP awards. This season, there was an adjustment period when Tortorella was fired and replaced by the more offensive-minded Vigneault. His unsure contract status may also have weighed on his mind.
"It's been an interesting year, a year where you learn a lot about the team and yourself," Lundqvist said. "A lot of ups and downs. Every year is different. This year we had a new coach and a different system. It had a different feel."
Lundqvist's teammates could sense his frustration at the beginning of the season.
"He's one of the best goalies in the world, if not the best," said Rangers backup goaltender Cam Talbot. "It was really tough when Hank wasn't playing up to his own standards he still was paying well, but maybe not where he wanted to be."
Biron recently re-watched every Rangers game from the beginning of the year through January for a project he was working on. He said that when he came to mid-December, he noticed a marked change in Lundqvist.
"I watched the way he was reacting, making saves and his body language," Biron said. "Hank started the season very frustrated but then there was this big change in the middle of December. I know he changed his pads, but that could be just coincidental. I think it was a number of things but you started to see a brighter, happier Lundqvist going into the end of December."
Lundqvist said the changes were not so much physical or technical as they were mental. He credits his sports psychologist, whom he did not want to name, for helping him work through some challenges at the beginning of the season.
"The turning point was mid-December. I sat down and talked to someone and things started into place," he said. "He just asked the right questions. It was a lot about mentally how you approach things. Sometimes, you need to remind yourself what you need to do."
Lundqvist needs no reminding what he needs to do at this time of year. Over the years he has compiled 30 playoff victories, but has never won his last game of the season. Who's to say that it couldn't happen this year, one which has been like no other for Lundqvist.
"It was definitely a challenging start, but to overcome that and learn from it and get to the level I think I should be at has been good for my confidence," Lundqvist said. "In the end it's about getting in. And I'm proud and excited about our chances."