New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault challenged his No. 1 goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, to get off to a better start this season after struggling early the past few years, and "The King" has responded by restaking his claim as the NHL's best.
After adjusting his preseason approach to focus more on technique and position-specific drills with goaltending coach Benoit Allaire, Lundqvist has emerged as the early favorite to win his second Vezina Trophy as the League's top goaltender by backstopping the Rangers to the top spot in the Eastern Conference after a 31-save shutout of the Nashville Predators on Monday.
Following a 5-1 loss against the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday, Lundqvist sits atop the NHL in goals-against average (1.94) and save percentage (.939); his 12 wins are second to the Washington Capitals' Braden Holtby, who has 13.
For those wondering if Lundqvist is sheltered behind a good team playing well defensively, he also leads NHL starters with an adjusted 5-on-5 save percentage of .954, according to war-on-ice.com, a measurement that weighs shot quality based on the distance of the shots a goalie faces.
"He's our best player, there's no doubt," Vigneault recently told The New York Times.
Lundqvist's spot atop the Vezina Trophy race is aided in part by the lower-body injury that kept preseason favorite and reigning winner Carey Price out of action for nine games, but even a healthy Price would have had a hard time staying ahead the way Lundqvist has played through the first six-plus weeks of the regular season. So what has changed for Lundqvist this season compared to the past few, when he didn't seem to find his top form until sometime in December?
In addition to altering the preseason focus with an eye toward a better start, Lundqvist has talked about the benefit of new skates that allow him to more easily grab an edge from his low, wide stance. But the bigger difference, apart from what he's described as a more relaxed mindset, may be where those skates are taking him.
Long known for deeper positioning and a goal line-out approach, Lundqvist has been spotted well beyond the edges of his crease more often to start the season, whether it's taking ice early and retreating with an odd-man rush, or charging out harder from the blue ice when he reads an open look. Although that has at times left him diving back across the crease Superman-style on a handful of highlight-reel saves, Lundqvist believes he's better for it.
"I think a lot of it is just trusting your instincts," Lundqvist told the New York Daily News after the game Monday. "If you look at my game this year, I'm challenging a little bit more, trusting my instincts, and we talked about going into this season to be a bit more aggressive. Just mentally I feel I'm way more relaxed, my focus."