Through the Rangers’ tumultuous start — their 8-2-2 record and first-place standing in the Metropolitan Division notwithstanding — there has been one constant. And it’s been the same constant now for a decade.
“He’s our best player, there’s no doubt,” coach Alain Vigneault said of goalie Henrik Lundqvist on Tuesday morning before a 5-2 win over the Capitals that was as much a testament to Lundqvist’s steadiness as it was to his team’s shakiness.
“He’s our highest-paid player also,” the coach happened to add, before pausing and coming back to the point. “He’s the best player we have.”
That has been the case for most of the time since Lundqvist got his first career start on Oct. 8, 2005, an 3-2 overtime loss to the Devils at the Meadowlands. It was an inauspicious beginning for a 23-year-old kid from Are, Sweden, the team’s seventh-round draft pick in 2000.
When Lundqvist likely gets the nod for Friday’s game against the Avalanche in Denver, he will be playing his 742nd game as a Ranger, including regular season and postseason, to tie Mike Richter for the most appearances by a goaltender in franchise history. Lundqvist, who will turn 34 in March, has passed Richter in most categories for top goalie in team history, owning the most career wins, shutouts, and playoff victories.
Yet the prize that matters to him most remains out of reach. The Rangers have made the conference final in three of the past four season, and two seasons ago advanced to Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final before falling to the Kings.
The franchise netminder knows the clock is ticking on getting that elusive championship, and he has started this season as sharp as he’s ever been. After Vigneault challenged him –at their exit meeting following a seven-game loss to the Lightning in the conference final last spring — to begin this season better, Lundqvist devised a plan with renowned goaltending coach Benoit Allaire on how he could accomplish that.
So how’s a 1.88 goals-against average and a .943 save percentage sound for the first 10 games?
“He works hard all the time, but obviously there was a good focus between him and Benoit on how to prepare himself for this start,” said Vigneault, whose team is traveling Wednesday and will practice Thursday in Denver. “He’s certainly been a big reason we’re winning a lot of games right now.”
hat’s a nice way of saying that without Lundqvist, the Rangers would look to be in disarray.
Rick Nash has one goal — which came when he was hooked on an empty-net breakaway, so he never even put the puck in. Chris Kreider has one goal. The stout defensive trio of Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal each have struggled to find their games after an offseason dealing with the aftereffects of injuries.
But there is still Lundqvist. In six of his 10 starts, he has seen 30 or more shots, and in those games, he’s 5-0-1 with a 1.81 GAA and a .951 save percentage. In the second period Tuesday, he stopped 13 of 14 shots, while the Blueshirts were able to get only two shots total on his Washington counterpart Braden Holtby. When the skilled Capitals pushed in the third period of this “statement game,” Lundqvist stopped all 12 shots he faced.
“Hanky played great,” Staal said. “He’s a huge part of our team and he stood in there for us, especially when they had the momentum there in the second period. That was big.”
Lundqvist has 36 more regular-season games to go before he ties Richter as the goalie with the sixth-most played for one team. He has been the face of this franchise for so long, and continues to be so as the Rangers strive to find their game at the start of this season.
“We play so many games, you are going to have different guys step up at different times,” said Lundqvist, whose team visits the Coyotes in Arizona on Saturday in the second leg of a weekend back-to-back. “I think moving forward, as well, having that many games, it’s going to be important to have a lot of different players that can step up.”
One already has, and it’s been the same player for the past 10 years.