There will be quibbles and debates, but the reality is you can’t find another goalie in this era with the kind of credentials that Henrik Lundqvist can boast.
He has a career .920 save percentage, second to only Dominik Hasek in NHL history, and he has been at that mark or better now in five consecutive seasons.
He has been nominated for the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP, an extreme rarity these days for a goalie.
He has also finished in the top six in Vézina Trophy voting every single year he’s been in the NHL, a run of eight seasons that’s sure to become nine when totals are released next month.
In a time when so many backstops are considered good but not great, and when who’s the best seems to shift by the season, Lundqvist is always in the conversation.
Not bad for a seventh-round draft pick 14 years ago from the Swedish ski-resort town of Are.
The only thing Lundqvist lacks now is the one thing that has come with every Hall of Fame netminder’s candidacy in recent years, from Patrick Roy to Grant Fuhr and Ed Belfour.
A Stanley Cup.
It’s not fair to pin that on Lundqvist – many of the Rangers teams he has played on over the years were competitive primarily due to his play. The fact is that, in this 30-team era, more great players are going to go Cup-less than ever before, and – at age 32 – Lundqvist is in danger of headlining that group.
But he has a heckuva chance in front of him at the moment; one win against the Montreal Canadiens is all he needs to qualify for his first Stanley Cup final and to play on the NHL’s biggest stage.
It’s been a long time coming. It’s been a long time deserved.
“It’s going to be a tough game,” Lundqvist said of the Rangers’ first opportunity to close out the Habs – in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final on Tuesday. “But it’s exciting, too, to know that you’re one game away. I mean, you have to motivate yourself to get to a level where you’re helping the team, and that’s pretty good motivation right there.”
If the past few weeks have proven anything, it’s that the suave Swede is already a hockey god on Broadway. His accomplishments are viewed as so routine that they don’t always require plaudits any more, with teammates often shrugging and offering up a “That’s Hank” in response to his latest marvellous save or game.
Lundqvist’s Game 4 win – in which New York spent nearly 15 minutes on the penalty kill – bumped his save percentage to .931 and gave him his 41st career playoff win, 22nd-best in league history and tying him with Mike Richter for the franchise record.
“It’s always a proud feeling when you’re up there with those guys,” Lundqvist said.
“He’s as good as he’s been all year,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “He’s in a zone.”
Since he entered the league, Lundqvist has played in more postseason games (85) than anyone except Pittsburgh’s Marc-André Fleury, but so many have been losses, with his career playoff record sitting at an ugly 30-37 prior to going 11-7 so far this year.
His individual numbers, however, are right up there with many of the goalies who have won Cups in that span, on par with Jonathan Quick and Corey Crawford and miles better than Cam Ward, J.S. Giguere and Fleury.
Lundqvist has almost always been good for the saves – especially in recent years. His teammates haven’t always responded with the goals in front of him.
The Rangers loss in the conference finals two years ago hurt in particular, with the rival New Jersey Devils and Martin Brodeur outduelling them in a tight, defensive series that was Lundqvist’s first taste of life beyond the second round.
He had two shutouts in New York’s two wins in the first three games, but the Rangers were worn down by ex-coach John Tortorella’s short bench and scored only 14 times in the six-game series.
“It felt like we didn’t reach our full potential,” Lundqvist explained. “It felt like we had some more to give, and that is something you want to make sure this time around that you put everything out there.
“Every practice now – everything – every little thing I can do now to help my game I’m trying to do that and trying to do it the right way so I can help this team to win games. It’s fun when you challenge yourself to try to reach your top level, and that’s what you’re trying to do every game. But especially when it comes down to important games. You want to try to be there for your team, and it’s definitely about pushing yourself.”
This is a better Rangers team than two years ago. They have more depth, are better coached and far more equipped to contend for a championship, something they’re on the verge of doing for the first time since 1994.
Even so, if they can close out Montreal, the Rangers are going to be in tough come the finals. Whoever advances out of the West – Chicago or Los Angeles – will be a heavy favourite, and it will fall to Lundqvist to carry the underdogs on his back in a way he wasn’t able to against the Devils.
It’s a tall task. But the good news for New York is that everything King Henrik has done to date suggests that kind of series is well within his reach.