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Monday, May 26, 2014

The King of New York is Approaching First Crack at Stanley Cup


BROSSARD, QUE. – Standing at a lectern on a riser far from the lights of Manhattan, Michel Therrien laid out what he saw as a path to hope for the Montreal Canadiens. Scoring first is the key, the coach said, before conceding, “usually to win a hockey game, you need to get three goals.”

Was Canadiens’ fatigue to blame for Game 4 loss to Rangers?

His team has not won a game this spring when it scores fewer than three goals, including its Eastern Conference final series with the New York Rangers. Montreal is on the verge of elimination heading into Game 5 at home on Tuesday night, in large part because of a very significant barrier to getting those three goals a game.

And it might be the best-looking barrier in hockey.

Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has kept the Canadiens to fewer than three goals in all three New York wins. He allowed three goals in his only loss of the series, but two of those beat him only after taking odd bounces off bodies in front of his net.

Lundqvist had the best save-percentage in the playoffs on Monday. He had allowed three goals in only four of 18 games — stingier than Los Angeles Kings starter Jonathan Quick (eight times in 17 games) and Chicago Blackhawks starter Corey Crawford (seven in 15) heading into their meeting Monday night.

And now, Lundqvist is one win from his first appearance in the Stanley Cup final.

“It’s exciting … to know that you’re one game away,” he said late on Sunday night. “You have to motivate yourself to get to a level where you’re helping the team, and that’s pretty good motivation right there.”

Lundqvist arrived at the lectern in Manhattan 40 minutes after the Rangers emerged with an overtime win in Game 4. His teammates had already met with reporters in the dressing room, and his coach had already taken his turn. Everyone else was a warmup act for him.

In 2012, People magazine named Lundqvist one of the sexiest men alive, describing him as “just the man to heat up the ice” despite all of his clunky goaltending equipment. The 32-year-old has also appeared in Vogue and on The Late Show with David Letterman. He has also prepared an apple pie on air with Martha Stewart, with the host asking him how many “fabulous blocks” he had made in the previous night’s game.

“New York fits him,” Swedish centre Henrik Zetterberg told Sports Illustrated two years ago. “He wears it well, like his suits. The culture, the food, the fashion … If he wins [the Stanley Cup], just give him the key.”

Lundqvist wore a tailored grey suit to the lectern on Sunday night, his beard trimmed, his hair styled to the point where someone might wonder where he was headed, at midnight, on a Sunday. The answer, even if he was headed home: Probably somewhere fabulous.

He has made a home in New York, where the Rangers lucked into a franchise goaltender with the 205th pick in the 2000 NHL Draft. (The Islanders, that other team in New York, picked goaltender Rick DiPietro first overall that year.)

With his win on Sunday, Lundqvist tied Mike Richter (41) for the most playoff wins in franchise history. Earlier in the season, Lundqvist became the team’s all-time leader in regular season wins (309) and shutouts (50).

“I’ve been part of it for nine years, and I’m going to be part of it for a long time, I hope,” he said with a smile. “I’m just really proud to be out there with those guys and hopefully can keep it going a little more.”

He has not been infallible against the Canadiens. Defenceman Francis Bouillon beat him on a clean shot from inside the faceoff circle on Sunday night, and Alexei Markov beat him cleanly from the other side in the previous game.

Most of the eight goals the Canadiens have scored, though, have been through traffic, or through fortunate bounces.

“He’s like any goalie, he’s great at making the first save,” Canadiens captain Brian Gionta said. “You’ve got to get screens, tips and rebounds on him. And you’ve got to make sure that you get second and third opportunities. That’s how it is across the board with all the goalies now.”

Teammate Tomas Plekanec said that means the Canadiens will have to spend more time near the net, getting in his way, obstructing his view.

“We’ve just got to keep wearing him down, keep in front of the net,” he said. “That’s one thing we can to more, too: We can put more pucks in the crease.”

They are down to their final chance. If the Canadiens fail, the Rangers will advance to the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1994, this being the 20-year anniversary of the team’s last NHL championship. The action would shift to Manhattan, where Lundqvist is known simply as “The King.”

“You don’t think about what’s ahead,” he said. “You’re just going in and trying to do your job here. It’s going to be a tough game … I look forward to that challenge.”

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