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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Lundqvist, One Win From Cup Finals, Is Playing at the Top of His Game


By Jeff Z. Klein

For all the dramatics of the Rangers’ series against Montreal — the controversy surrounding Canadiens goalie Carey Price’s knee injury; the rhetoric over head shots, suspensions and spying; and Martin St. Louis’s laser shot that won Game 4 in overtime — there has been one quiet constant for the Rangers: the brilliance of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

Heading into Game 5 on Tuesday, the Rangers stand within one victory of the Stanley Cup finals, the closest Lundqvist has come to hockey’s ultimate prize. And there is good reason to believe he is capable of leading them there, because Lundqvist has never played better.

“You don’t think about what’s ahead,” Lundqvist said after the Rangers’ 3-2 victory in overtime Sunday, acknowledging that the Rangers still had to close out the series against the Canadiens. “But it’s exciting, too, to know that you’re one game away.”

Lundqvist, 32, enters the game with a .931 save percentage, the best among regular goalies in the playoffs. It is the first time in his stellar nine-season N.H.L. career that he has led the league in that all-important goaltending statistic.

Lundqvist, who won an Olympic gold medal in 2006 and a Vezina trophy in 2012, has carried the Rangers year after year. He is routinely excellent, but in the playoffs, he has never quite been at his best. In recent postseasons, the distinction of logging the best save percentage has belonged to other goalies, all of whom have lifted the Cup: Tuukka Rask, Jonathan Quick, Tim Thomas and Marc-Andre Fleury.

But the Cup has been elusive for Lundqvist.

In 2012, he helped the Rangers reach the Eastern Conference finals before they fell to the Devils in overtime in Game 6.

Afterward, he talked about his career in terms of time dwindling and his diminishing chances of winning the Cup. He expressed disappointment in the fact that the Rangers had gotten so close to the Cup finals.

After the Rangers were eliminated in the second round last year, he said the team had taken “a step back.”

“You work so hard to be in position to win,” Lundqvist said then. “It doesn’t matter where you are in your career. If you have an opportunity, you have to grab it. I’m disappointed. Hopefully, next year will be better.”

It has been much better, but Lundqvist is well aware that a 3-1 series lead does not guarantee victory. After all, he was in goal when the Rangers blew a 3-1 series lead for the first time in team history, against Washington in 2009.

He also was in goal when the Rangers rallied from the same deficit this month to eliminate the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. Lundqvist was the biggest catalyst in that comeback, allowing only one goal in each of the last three games while turning back 102 shots.

In four games against the Canadiens, he has stopped 109 of 117 shots, including 27 of 29 in Sunday’s victory. It was the 41st playoff victory of Lundqvist’s career, tying him for the club record with Mike Richter, the Stanley Cup-winning goalie in 1994 — the last time the Rangers made the finals. Earlier this season, Lundqvist took over the lead from Richter on the Rangers’ career regular-season wins list and from Ed Giacomin on the club’s career shutout list.

“There are so many great goaltenders that played for this organization, and earlier this year I beat a couple records, and it means a lot to me,” Lundqvist said Sunday. “This organization, I’ve been part of it for nine years, and I’m going to be part of it for a long time, I hope.”

Lundqvist’s Canadiens counterpart, the rookie Dustin Tokarski, has scrambled and scuttled and dived to keep the Canadiens in the series, and he has attracted a lot of well-deserved praise.

“He’s a battler, and most important thing, he’s a winner,” Montreal Coach Michel Therrien said of Tokarski.

Lundqvist has flown a bit more under the radar, but only because his excellence is almost taken for granted. But he has been stronger and steadier in goal.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen him play the last few weeks,” Brian Boyle said of his teammate Lundqvist earlier in this series, “but he’s been on another planet.”

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