By Sean Hartnett
18,006 fans gathered inside Madison Square Garden held their breath after Henrik Lundqvist took a puck to the throat during the second period of Saturday’s 4-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes.
The arena fell silent as Lundqvist writhed in pain, kicking his legs while positioned flat on his stomach. Carolina forward Brad Malone’s rising shot made contact with Lundqvist’s throat a split second after Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh had inadvertently lifted King Henrik’s mask with his stick blade. Concerned fans and teammates looked on while team trainer Jim Ramsay attended to Lundqvist, scraping snow off the ice and pressing it against his neck.
Once Lundqvist was able to rise to his feet, the capacity crowd offered a standing ovation and roaring chants of “Hen-rik, Hen-rik.” New Yorkers love their star athletes; even more so, they love star athletes whose will to win overrides any concern for their personal well-being.
Lundqvist should have left the game, but he opted to preserve through what he described as “extreme pain” and headaches to secure the 4-1 victory.
“I was getting ready for the shot and I could feel a stick pull up my helmet, so I lost vision of the puck,” Lundqvist said. “I had a bad feeling because I could kind of see the puck coming, then I lost track of it. When I got hit, it’s obviously extremely painful and it’s hard to breathe for a couple minutes.
“I got very lightheaded and got a little worried the first minute or so, but they told me just to breathe and I slowly started to feel better. The first couple of minutes it was more for me to see if I was going to start to feel better after a while, and slowly I did.
“I had some headaches the rest of the game but I guess that was normal because I couldn’t breathe there for a little bit.”
Lundqvist has always possessed the refuse-to-lose mentality and gritty toughness of beloved New York sports icons Derek Jeter and Willis Reed.
Who could forget Jeter making that remarkable catch at Yankee Stadium in 2004 against the Red Sox, knowing full well that only bloodshed and bruises awaited him in the stands? Even more unforgettable was Reed hobbling out of the Knicks’ locker room on one leg ahead of a winner-take-all Game 7 in the 1970 NBA Finals. Reed proceeded to sink baskets over Wilt Chamberlain to deliver the Knickerbockers’ first NBA championship.
These are the moments that demanding metropolitan sports fans identify with. These are the moments when revered athletes gain an extra layer of greatness.
Lundqvist is as New York as it gets. He wins games single-handedly like Lawrence Taylor used to. His closet of designer suits and carefully slick hairstyle match the magnetism of Broadway Joe Namath. Like Joe Willie, he’s a rock star — and he can play a lick too, yet he carries himself with the debonair grace of Joe DiMaggio as well as the humility and dignity of Lou Gehrig.
Whenever he takes his position between the pipes, there’s a chance you’ll witness take-your-breath-away moments that you used to see from Willie Mays. The Say Hey Kid routinely robbed batters of triples with his unparalleled athleticism in center field. King Henrik pulls off the most acrobatic, jaw-dropping saves against the NHL’s most lethal snipers.
On top of all of this, he performs with the unshakable consistency of Mariano Rivera. Lundqvist is the only goaltender in NHL history to have recorded at least 20 wins in each of his first 10 seasons. Since he entered the league in 2005-06, Lundqvist leads all NHL netminders in wins (333), goals-against average (2.26), shutouts (55), appearances (612) and is tied for first with a save percentage of .921.
He’s been as loyal to the Rangers as Don Mattingly was to the pre-dynasty Yankees and David Wright has been to the modern-day Mets. He declined to chase free-agent bucks or the lure of donning another uniform in the chase for an elusive championship ring.
“There were two things that became really clear to me,” Lundqvist said after agreeing to a seven-year, $59.5 million extension in Dec. 2013. “Number one was I really want to win the Cup here in New York. It’s my biggest goal and my biggest dream. It’s what pushes me to work harder. And secondly, I want to be a Ranger for life.
“That was a big thing that became really clear to me, how they treated me. Everything from coaches to players to people working around the organization, to the city, the fans. To picture myself anywhere else was just wrong and was never an option.”
Lundqvist shouldn’t only be embraced by the hockey diehards that fill the Garden and adore his every move. King Henrik deserves to be the darling of all of New York.
Just like Lady Liberty, Lundqvist is carrying the torch for New York. Maybe someday soon, his burning passion will propel the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup championship since 1994. Then he’ll be remembered like Mike Richter, Mark Messier, Brian Leetch and Adam Graves for bringing the most joyous of celebrations back to “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”