By Ian O'Connor
NEW YORK -- It is not easy to embarrass Henrik Lundqvist, unless, of course, you tell him he is the best athlete in New York. At his Madison Square Garden locker Wednesday, after he was done saying all the tempered things a franchise player needs to say when leading 2-0 in an Eastern Conference finals, Lundqvist was approached by a reporter with the following premise:
Derek Jeter is retiring, and Martin Brodeur isn't far behind. Carmelo Anthony has missed the playoffs, and Eli Manning has been temporarily sacked. The Nets are the Nets, the Jets are the Jets, and the Mets are most certainly the Mets, leaving the King as the certified king of the big city, and everything his injured buddy Matt Harvey aspires to be.
Lundqvist laughed an uncomfortable laugh upon hearing a summary of the above.
"Well, I don't know," he said. "It's flattering that you say it that way. It's kind of hard to compare athletes from different sports. How can you, really? There are so many great players in all the major sports in this city."
Just none as great as Lundqvist, and the gap between the goalie and the competition is much wider than the gap between the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens.
"I would never discuss it that way, but if you want to do that, that's fine," Lundqvist said before letting go of another laugh. "It makes me a little uncomfortable. In hockey, to have success you really need your teammates to support you and help you play your game. When you're a good hitter in baseball, you hit the ball and that's it. But for me to be able to play at a good level, I need to feel the support. I need at critical moments to get that block, to get that stick in the way. That's made me feel great the last couple of months."
Truth is, a hockey goalie controls the outcome of a game in ways that other athletes (NFL quarterbacks included) cannot. Truth is, Lundqvist has elevated his team more than his team has elevated him, even if Montreal's P.K. Subban suggested that the dominant force in this series isn't the opposing goalie, but the four-leaf clover the opposing goalie has tucked inside his pads.
Earth to Subban: Even to the untrained hockey eye, Lundqvist is a lot of things, and lucky ain't one of 'em.
Of course, Lundqvist was willing to play along with this low, two-day drama after his Garden practice, conceding that any athlete in a game so fast and unpredictable needs a friendly bounce or three before reminding reporters that the hardest workers usually "earn those bounces." This was the goalie's subtle way of turning away yet another shot from the Canadiens, who fired 41 on net in Game 2, 40 of them in vain.
"It's definitely an important position, goalie, and going into big games I think you definitely feel the pressure," Lundqvist told ESPNNewYork.com. "But you try to look at it as a fun challenge, to have a big part in the outcome. You know if you don't play well, you're not going to win. You know that.
"Ever since I got here, my dream and my goal is to win the Stanley Cup, and the more time I spend here the bigger that desire gets. So it would mean everything for me to win the Cup for New York. We have a lot of work still ahead of us here, but it's definitely what drives me the most, the desire to win."
That desire has fueled a staggering run of brilliance from Lundqvist, who has saved 162 of 168 shots over the Rangers' five-game playoff winning streak, and who is riding his own personal five-game winning streak in Game 7s -- just in case the Canadiens rebound Thursday and Sunday nights at the Garden and take this series the distance.
The smart money says that isn't going to happen, not with Lundqvist on one side and Carey Price's novice of a replacement, Dustin Tokarski, on the other. Rangers backup Cam Talbot, a self-described "student to the best in the world," has had a front-row seat to the show his teacher has put on this postseason, and believes the three consecutive season-saving victories over Pittsburgh and the two breakthrough games in Montreal's Bell Centre, a house of horrors no more, featured a Lundqvist who "rose to a level I don't even know if we've seen so far this year."
The second-stringer described the first-stringer as an athlete with an unwavering focus, and as a competitor who is angered more by defeat than he is satisfied by a shutout.
"You can tell in his eyes," Talbot said, "that every time he lets in a goal he's pissed off. He hates it when one gets by him."
Not that many do. The 205th player drafted in 2000 -- the same year Tom Brady was pick No. 199 in New England -- owns more career shutouts for the Rangers than Eddie Giacomin, and more career victories for the Rangers than Mike Richter, playing a lot louder than he talks. Though his Garden locker is adjacent to Lundqvist's, Talbot said that he rarely speaks with his teammate before taking the ice (the goalie puts on his game face before he puts on his mask), and that Lundqvist is vocal only when ordering his well-meaning defensemen to quit trying to block the puck and get the hell out of his way.
This approach has left the Rangers' best player with a .964 save percentage over his past five games. "I don't think that he's a lucky goalie," Talbot said.
A lucky guy? Yes, 32-year-old Henrik Lundqvist, rich and famous, is all of that. He's a guitar-jammin' owner of a Tribeca restaurant, Tiny's and the Bar Upstairs, and a walking GQ cover hailed for his looks and sex appeal by People magazine. The world's most impenetrable goalie is one 30-second Dos Equis ad away from becoming the world's most interesting man.
He's also one parade away from purging the metropolitan area's memory of that painful conference-finals loss to Brodeur's Devils in 2012, and from notarizing the obvious: Nobody in or around the big city can touch him, especially now that Masahiro Tanaka has remembered how to lose a baseball game.
Henrik Lundqvist is the undisputed king of New York, even if a half dozen victories still separate him from his crown.