For those seeking clarity regarding a Rangers’ team whose record is a whole lot better looking in the black-and-white of newsprint or website font than the team has been in blue, white and red on the ice, it could not be more crystal clear than this:
With Henrik Lundqvist on a mission — as he has been since reporting to camp after having been challenged by his head coach to be at his best from the get-go — all things are possible.
The Blueshirts are 16-3-2 following Monday’s 3-0 Garden victory over the Predators in a game that provided a microcosm of a season, through which they bend but do not break because the King simply refuses to allow it.
“I’m more relaxed this year,” Lundqvist said after boosting his league-leading save percentage to .946 with a 31-save performance. “I’ve always been so intense, but I’ve taken it down a notch.
“I’m very focused on the process.”
The shots for the first period were 14-3, Predators. The attempts were 35-12 after the Rangers — who have the worst man-advantage to man-disadvantage discrepancy in the NHL — played short-handed for 7:21 of the final 8:53. The shots after two periods were 25-7, Predators, and the attempts 62-21 after Nashville owned a 10:00-0:00 advantage in power-play minutes.
And yet, it was 1-0 Rangers, after Rick Nash scored his fourth goal in two games at 4:32. Of course it was. Who needs possession time? Who needs to put shots on net? Apparently not the Rangers, who, even when they do have the puck, operate under a philosophy of not shooting until they can see the whites of the goalie’s eyes.
“I don’t expect the team to play a perfect game,” said Lundqvist, he of the 1.74 goals-against average. “As a goalie, you need to be there for the team.
“As long as I take care of my part, I know they’re going to get going.”
Lundqvist’s part included a bevy of stops around the net on those Nashville tries that did get through a Rangers team that flashed back to 2011-12 by blocking 11 shots in both the first and second periods before finishing with a total of 26, Kevin Klein leading the way with six while Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh had four apiece.
“For them to pay the price, I have a lot of respect for that,” Lundqvist said. “I think the guys, when they see that, it gives the bench energy.
“As a goalie, it gives [me] a lot of energy.”
There was some good fortune as well, specifically when Filip Forsberg missed the net with Lundqvist unsuccessfully scrambling to get back after losing a race for the puck to James Neal in the right circle.
“When I took the first step, it seemed like a good idea,” Lundqvist said, laughing a winner’s laugh after being primarily responsible for extending Nashville’s franchise-record scoreless streak to 213:47.
But laughter has been part of the process for Lundqvist this season. The “real” King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, may recently have called for a ban on baths in his country, but the King of New York hockey is bathing in his new approach to the game.
“It’s a lot about trusting my instincts and challenging a little more,” said Lundqvist, who notably came out to cut down the angle on a Ryan Ellis blast from the left circle at 12:45 during the Predators’ first power play. “We [he and goaltending coach Benoit Allaire] talked about that a lot.
“It’s just more focus. I’m even smiling during games. I never did that in nine years. Smiling is good.”
So the Rangers keep on rolling, even if there are times it seems as if the puck is a boulder rolling down a hill against them. All along, it has been a chicken-and-egg thing for the Rangers, and no, no one is calling them a bunch of ’fraidy cats.
Specifically, as the old-as-time, which-came-first applies to the Blueshirts, it is whether the club would play a better overall brand of hockey and continue to win or whether they would continue to play flawed hockey but start to lose.
The answer provided last night was neither.
“I’d rather find a way to win than play perfect,” said Lundqvist, who merely found the way to do both on Monday.