Search This Blog

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Anchor of Rangers Buoys Them Just in Time


After practice one afternoon, Henrik Lundqvist discussed his hockey mortality. “You don’t know how many chances you get in the playoffs,” Lundqvist said. “Before you know it, it might be over.”

Lundqvist did not share these feelings the other day, or last week, or even last month.

This was in 2012, in an interview conducted not long before the postseason. Lundqvist was selected as the league’s premier goalie, and the Rangers entered those playoffs as the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but they did not even reach the Stanley Cup finals.

This year they did, and the fact that it took until Lundqvist’s ninth season to play for the Cup, at age 32, underscores the capricious nature of the sport: the best players, on the best teams, are not always rewarded. It would be a shame if he never again plays for a championship, if his brilliance in Game 4 on Wednesday night preserved the Rangers’ honor, but only served to delay the inevitable.

There was reason to cheer again at Madison Square Garden, to clap and stomp and chant, “HEN-reek,” after Lundqvist — with perhaps a little assistance from the hockey gods, who kept two pucks from crossing the goal line — shepherded his team to a 2-1 victory.

Stopping 40 of 41 Los Angeles shots, including all 15 in the third period, Lundqvist rescued the Rangers again, as he did in Game 7 against Philadelphia, as he did in Game 6 against Pittsburgh, as he tends to do with his team facing elimination at home. In his last eight games at the Garden in those circumstances, Lundqvist is 8-0, compiling two shutouts and a .968 save percentage.

“One mistake and the season is over,” Lundqvist said after the game. “You’re definitely aware of that.”

It was a candid assessment from a perceptive guy, someone who has been the Rangers’ fulcrum year after year but only within the last three seasons had morphed into a postseason dynamo, but especially for these finals. Lundqvist had been viewed as the superior goalie in each of the Rangers’ three prior series, but Jonathan Quick, who won the Cup in 2012, is at the very least his equal.

The assumption was that Lundqvist would have to steal a game (or four) for the Rangers to overcome the mighty Kings and capture their first title since 1994. They lost Game 1 in overtime, Game 2 in double overtime and Game 3 after ceding two goals on deflections and a third after an unlucky carom — a lack of puck luck, as Lundqvist called it.

Lundqvist had played well before Wednesday, but he had been victimized by circumstances out of his control — wicked redirections, not-so-subtle prodding in the crease, egregious defensive breakdowns. As a result, Lundqvist said he wanted to be careful in evaluating his performance, but still, he said, he needed to play better, and he did.

Aside from the breakaway goal he yielded to Dustin Brown, Lundqvist stymied Brown from up close and Jarret Stoll from the slot and Jeff Carter with an outstretched pad.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Lundqvist became the first goalie to record at least 40 shots in an elimination regulation victory in the finals since the N.H.L. began recording saves as an official statistic in the 1950s.

He saw no reason to apologize for the shot by Alec Martinez that, after squeezing through his pads, was cleared off the line by Anton Stralman. Or for their good fortune in a frenetic final 80 seconds, when a tipped shot by Tanner Pearson slipped between Lundqvist’s legs and danced a millimeter or two in front of the line. Perhaps the Rangers’ puck luck had changed.

They will not know until Game 5 on Friday night in Los Angeles, where the Rangers, buoyed by this sliver of hope, will have another opportunity to extend this series. To let Lundqvist relish the chance before it is over.

No comments:

Post a Comment