By Larry Brooks
ST. LOUIS — His is the name above the marquee and his is the face of the Rangers’ franchise even if it’s hidden by a mask. He is the one who appears on Dave Letterman’s show and he is the one who plays tennis with Novak Djokovic and jams with John McEnroe.
And yet, first and foremost, Henrik Lundqvist is a hockey player…a goaltender…never more in his element than when he’s in his gear, at a rink, as he and his teammates will be here on Thursday night when the Blueshirts open this season of great expectations against the Blues.
He never forgets it, does this Swedish native son who has been adopted as New York’s favorite son.
“All the things that come with playing for the Rangers, all the things that come with having some success, they’re great, I appreciate them and I try to take advantage of them when I can, but this is who I am,” Lundqvist told The Post following Monday’s practice. “This is such a big part of my life that when I’m not playing, I miss it.
“And this year, even though the summer was shorter, I missed it more than ever. You need some time to get away, and definitely after the way last season ended, but I couldn’t wait to get back. And from talking to the guys, I think we all have had that same feeling.”Wh
Lundqvist’s profile has never been higher and the expectations greeting the Rangers haven’t been higher in two decades. The Rangers are New York’s best team, still riding the wave they rode to the Cup final, determined to write a much better Hollywood ending to the script this time around.
Out of the devastation of defeat in a Game 5 clincher following which Lundqvist and up to a dozen of his teammates were still in their gear 45 minutes after Alec Martinez’s rebound goal sent the Rangers home in pumpkins rather than chariots, out of the despair that lingered for weeks, comes resolve.
“It hurt, of course it hurt, but at some point you have to let it go,” Lundqvist said. “You have to move on. You don’t look back. You go forward.”
Forward the Blueshirts march into 2014-15 with an intact core that has achieved a reasonable amount of success. Understand this: The Rangers do not consider themselves party crashers or outliers. Over the last three postseasons, only they and the Kings have won at least one round each year. Over the last three years, the Kings have won 10 series, the Rangers and Blackhawks six apiece.
“I think from what we’ve done, the series we’ve won, the number of playoff games we’ve played [57, second to LA’s 64], we should have high expectations of ourselves,” Lundqvist said. “I think if you look at the top teams — Boston, Chicago and LA — you see that their players demand a lot of themselves and of each other.
“That’s the way it is here. Of course I’m putting pressure on myself, but it’s not just me. It’s the group,” the goaltender said. “We’re not here just to be here and we’re not here just to have a good season. That’s not enough.”
Heroic in defeat last June, Lundqvist returned to Sweden for about two months. But he never lost touch with his guys in New York. In August, while at a Mets game, I asked Matt Harvey if he’d kept up on the Rangers’ offseason. “No, but I talked to Hank last week,” he said.
A few days later, I was at Yankee Stadium when the Tigers came in. I asked former Yankee Joba Chamberlain, a big-time Blueshirts fan, if he’d changed his hockey allegiance to the Red Wings. “No way,” he said. “Hey, I talked to Hank last week.”
Lundqvist laughed when told the tale.
“Joba had a good year, didn’t he?” Lundqvist said. Well, yes — up to the playoffs.
“This summer was good,” The King said. “I’ve gotten to do a lot of different things because of the success I’ve had and we’ve had as a team, but it’s all based on that. I understand that.
“I’ve had more opportunities over the last five years, it’s different than before that. Even the last two years, it’s different. But for me now, when I’m away from the rink, I spend so much of my time doing family things,” said Lundqvist, who is married with a two-year-old daughter. “I make sure not to do so much that it ever becomes a burden or takes away from my hockey.
“Because that’s the focus. Hockey and winning. Yep, hockey and winning.”