When the Rangers return to MSG tonight to host the Coyotes, they’ll honor Henrik Lundqvist for breaking Ed Giacomin’s shutout record. In a 2-0 road win over the Devils, the King made 21 saves in posting career shutout number 50. Fittingly, it came against arch rival Martin Brodeur in what perhaps was the final time he’ll ever face the all-time Devil.
Naturally, both goaltenders put on a show making quality saves in an air tight checking game with playoff implications. For Lundqvist, it concluded a record-breaking week with him also passing Mike Richter for first all-time in franchise wins. An 8-4 victory in which he still made some big stops finishing with 35 in a wide open affair. Faced with more pressure due to the closeness of the playoff race, he stepped it up garnering Second Star of the week honors trailing only Gustav Nyqvist with Jarome Iginla earning Third Star. He won all three starts posting a 1.67 GAA, .942 save percentage and one shutout.
In what’s been a challenging season, Lundqvist has once again elevated his level just in time for the playoff push. With every game meaning so much, he is proving why the Rangers invested another seven years in him for an average cap hit of $8.5 million starting in 2014-15. Needing only two wins to record his eighth season of 30 or more, his goals against average is down to 2.42 and save percentage is up to .919. Even in a roller coaster year, the Rangers’ MVP can be counted on. Without him, it’s hard to say where they’d be. Understudy Cam Talbot’s performed well but there’s no telling if he could be a full-time starter under such a pressure packed environment.
In 2000, the Rangers selected Lundqvist in the seventh round with the 205th overall pick. After spending time starring for Frolunda in the Swedish Elite League, he finally came over in ’05-06. I had followed him best as possible and was excited for his Broadway debut. After all, this was one of the best rated European prospects who had risen thanks to his brilliant play back home. Nobody knew what to expect. After splitting time with Kevin Weekes in the first half, Lundqvist became the number one goalie and won 30 games. His 30-12-9 mark with 2.24 GAA, .922 save percentage and two shutouts had him nominated for the Vezina despite not making the Calder cut. Alex Ovechkin took it besting Sidney Crosby with Dion Phaneuf third. He was named to the All-Rookie Team joining a strong class that included Brad Boyes and Andrej Meszaros.
Ever since that season when Lundqvist teamed with Jaromir Jagr to lead the Rangers back to the playoffs after nearly a decade away, they’ve made it every year except one. With key players changing, he’s always been the one constant. When Glen Sather dealt popular captain Ryan Callahan at this year’s deadline for Martin St. Louis, it reemphasized that point. Even after adding one of the game’s best scorers, the club remains built from the goal out around Lundqvist. Ironically, St. Louis enters tonight’s match without a goal and only three assists in his first 10 games. It’s a Ranger tradition.
Lundqvist’s greatest accomplishments have been leading his home country Sweden to Olympic gold in Torino (’06) and winning the Vezina in ’11-12. He posted career bests in wins (39), GAA (1.97) and save percentage (.930). He also recorded eight shutouts following up ’10-11 when he led the league with a career high 11. That season, it was his brilliant play that helped the Rangers win a division and earn the Eastern Conference’s top seed. However, they survived strong challenges from Ottawa and Washington advancing past the first two rounds in seven games thanks in large part to King Henrik. They rallied from a 3-2 deficit against the Senators and bested the Caps in Game Seven at MSG to make their first Conference Final since ’97. Though it ended bitterly with an emotional six-game ouster to the Hudson rival Devils on Adam Henrique’s goal in sudden death, it was a great season which raised the bar.
Following a second round disappointment to Eastern champ Boston, John Tortorella was replaced by Alain Vigneault. With Lundqvist one of the strongest voices who felt the team took a step back after adding Rick Nash, Sather made a change. After predictably struggling early, the Rangers have played better in the second half and sit third in the Metropolitan Division with 82 points. They trail the Flyers by a point with Philly visiting The Garden Wednesday on Rivalry Night. With the Red Wings and Leafs tied with 80 points and the Caps, Jackets and Devils still lurking, nothing is guaranteed. There are 10 games remaining including a crucial four-game Northwestern swing starting Friday in Calgary with stops at Edmonton, Vancouver and Colorado. Every game is significant.
With no margin for error, Vigneault will lean heavily on Lundqvist. The Rangers workhorse who tops the franchise in wins (304) and shutouts (50) will again be called upon to carry his team. Without King Henrik, none of it is possible.