From A King To A Czar: The passing of the torch began this past year with all-time Rangers great Henrik Lundqvist handing over the goalie reigns to Igor Shesterkin.
It’s the end of an era. Three days after Marc Staal was traded, the Rangers will make it official later today and buyout Henrik Lundqvist. The all-time franchise leader in wins (459), shutouts (64) and games played (887) as a goalie, will have the remaining year of his contract bought out by the team that stole him in the seventh round at number 205 in the 2000 NHL Draft.
He also won 61 playoff games against 67 defeats with a 2.30 GAA, .921 save percentage and 10 shutouts. Lundqvist also is a hero back home in Sweden for some memorable saves in the final moments of their gold medal win at the 2006 Olympics versus Finland.
We all knew it was coming. Following the Game Two defeat to the Hurricanes, he told teammates it was his final game for the only NHL team he’s ever known. Heir apparent Igor Shesterkin got the Game Three start following an injury that kept him out of the first two games against Carolina in an uneventful three game elimination in the Play In Round.
When both Team President John Davidson and GM Jeff Gorton indicated that they wouldn’t go forward with three goalies for the next season, the proverbial writing was on the wall. Given Lundqvist’s expensive $8.5 million cap hit, it was painfully obvious this day was coming.
According to TSN insider Darren Dreger, the team plans to exercise their buyout clause during the first period. It’s all but confirmed.
The dead salary breakdown is as follows:
2020-21 $5.5 million
2021-22 $1.5 million
They will save $3 million on the expected salary cap of $81.5 million for next year. In addition to getting the Red Wings to take Staal’s $5.7 million cap hit by throwing in a 2021 second round pick, that’s an extra $8.7 million in cap savings.
They’ve freed up tons of space to put themselves in position to re-sign Tony DeAngelo and Ryan Strome if that’s what they plan to do. Alex Georgiev and Brendan Lemieux are also Group II free agents. Jesper Fast is unrestricted. Let’s assume they’d like to keep the versatile two-way right wing, who can move up and down the lineup. They’ve created enough room to bring him back.
As important as that is, the focus of this post is on the outstanding career of Henrik Lundqvist. Dubbed King Henrik by New York Post columnist Larry Brooks, the nickname stuck. Most Ranger fans chanted, “Hen-rik, Hen-rik, Hen-rik!”, when he made a big save. Hank as he’s also affectionately known became a fan favorite quickly.
He took to playing in Manhattan quickly. The love from the diehard fans up in the Blue Seats was returned when he thanked the crowd following a home win after being named the game’s First Star. I’ll never forget it. It was great to be in the building for that moment.
There would be many more. In his rookie season after finally coming over from Sweden where he delivered a championship to Frolunda, Lundqvist took over the starting job from well respected veteran Kevin Weekes. In ’05-06, the 23-year old goalie won 30 games while posting a 2.24 GAA, .922 save percentage and two shutouts. He finished third for the Vezina, fourth for the Calder due to a loaded class featuring Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Dion Phaneuf. Lundqvist was ninth for the Hart.
For his 15-year Rangers career, he had five top three finishes for the Vezina and won the award recognizing the league’s best goalie in ’11-12. His best ever season. At age 29, Lundqvist set career bests in Wins (39), GAA (1.97) and save percentage (.930) while recording eight shutouts over 62 starts. His brilliant play under coach John Tortorella resulted in a third place finish for league MVP, the Rangers finishing with the East’s best record and advancing to the club’s first Conference Final since ’97.
It was the remarkable play of Lundqvist that allowed the Blueshirts to come back from a 3-2 deficit and defeat the Senators in the first round. He also was crucial in another tightly played second round series the Rangers prevailed in over the Caps. Both seven game series victories allowed them to set up a Battle of Hudson Eastern Conference Final. Unfortunately, they fell short in their bid to reach the Stanley Cup Final by losing the series to the Devils in six games. He was outplayed by counterpart Martin Brodeur. A bitter pill to swallow.
Following a disappointing five game second round loss to a better Bruins team, Lundqvist was tentative when discussing a long-term contract extension a year away from unrestricted free agency. That slight hesitation was enough for the team to replace Tortorella with former Canucks coach Alain Vigneault for ’13-14.
It was during that season that following a slow start, the Rangers found their footing under the more aggressive skating and offensive style of Vigneault. A Kreider hat trick versus a Tortorella coached Canucks at MSG was a good omen.
Once Vigneault figured out his personnel which included Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello, he was able to construct four good lines. With Brad Richards still there playing mostly with Carl Hagelin and Rick Nash, Vigneault had Kreider and Derek Stepan mostly with Ryan Callahan until the captain was traded to the Lightning for Martin St. Louis in a blockbuster captain for captain trade.
St. Louis joined a core moving between Richards and Stepan as Vigneault tried to find the right fit for the former Hart winner and Nash. With Benoit Pouliot meshing well with Brassard and Zuccarello, you had a strong checking line that combined the size of Brian Boyle with the smarts of Dominic Moore and tough complements Derek Dorsett and Daniel Carcillo.
The defense was never better with the top pair of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi becoming a key shutdown tandem that could also contribute offensively due to McDonagh. Vigneault trusted smooth skating Anton Stralman with Staal, who did the nuts and bolts. After not liking Michael Del Zotto, he was dealt to Nashville for Kevin Klein. A move that wound up being crucial. He worked well with John Moore and Raphael Diaz was a good extra D.
At 30, Lundqvist continued to be steady by winning 33 games while posting a 2.36 GAA, .920 save percentage and five shutouts. At one point however, he did struggle in December. Perhaps it was due to the thoughts of a contract extension that finally came with the two sides hammering out a seven-year contract worth $59.5 million. It would run from ’14-15 thru ’20-21. The average cap hit of $8.5 million made him the highest paid goalie.
When it was signed, the prevailing thought was that it was a little over-payment. However, he deserved it for how great a player he’d been. A model of consistency who won 30-plus games every year outside the lockout shortened season. Interestingly, Lundqvist’s struggles saw Vigneault, who created a goalie controversy in Vancouver between Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider, go to a hot Cam Talbot for three consecutive starts after Christmas. Was the same thing happening again in the Big Apple after they’d signed Lundqvist?
As well as Talbot performed, eventually Lundqvist regained his form. Things turned around. The Rangers went from a fringe playoff team to an improved one once Spring 2014 rolled around. Like 2012, they had to go seven in the first two rounds. First beating the Flyers in the first round thanks to some Carcillo magic and strong goaltending from Lundqvist in Game Seven.
The second round will always be fondly remembered. Facing a very tough Penguins who featured Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Patric Hornqvist and Marc-Andre Fleury, they went from being dead even after splitting a pair in Pittsburgh to two very disjointed performances at home to fall behind 3-1. Walking out of The Garden after Game Four, I couldn’t help feeling angry and disappointed at how lifeless they looked.
Were they about to go belly up again in another early exit at the expense of the hated Pens? It didn’t feel good. I really felt that team had a chance to win against them. Maybe the players felt the same way. They held a closed door players only meeting following Game Four. Veterans like Richards and St. Louis did a lot of talking. Both had been part of teams that rallied back from 3-1 series deficits with the Lightning. A team they won a Cup with due to St. Louis’ overtime heroics at Calgary and then taking Game Seven.
For his part, Lundqvist also spoke up at the team meeting. They emphasized that it wasn’t over. How right they were proven. A great win in Game Five where they were never seriously threatened pushed the series back to MSG for a Game Six. It was before then that St. Louis learned that his Mom France died. The entire team attended the funeral service the day before. They truly were a together T-E-A-M. That brought them closer together.
With the sixth game on appropriately Mother’s Day and a very supportive MSG crowd behind St. Louis and the team, they rallied around the emotional leader to force a seventh game. The best part was when St. Louis scored on a goalmouth scramble with the puck poetically bouncing off him and in. The reaction from the crowd said everything. It was so loud that the building shook. I knew right there, they would win that game and the series. I know I was far from alone. You had to believe.
It would’ve been easy for them to lose in enemy territory for a do or die Game Seven. But fittingly on a day Boyle scored on a breakaway, with the game tied late in the second period, St. Louis set up Richards for the series clincher in the power play. It was magical.
I knew exactly what would happen in the third. They sat back and relied on Lundqvist, who was brilliant. He made some clutch saves in a 20-minute period that felt like an eternity. Honestly, that three-game run is the best he ever played. He only allowed three goals on 105 shots versus a great offense with two of the best players in the game. The Rangers never trailed at any point in Games 5-7.
When it was over, they’d finally done it. They finally beat the Pens in a series. They also made franchise history by coming back from a 3-1 deficit for the first time. Something they repeated in the same round the following year. That one was even better.
Playing in the Conference Finals for the second time in three years, they faced the surprising Canadiens, who were led by Carey Price. Most hockey observers couldn’t wait to see the showdown between the game’s premier goalies. Now, with Montreal the higher seed they had the home ice. Over the years, the Bell Centre felt like the Hell Centre. It was a House of Horrors for Lundqvist in particular.
None of that mattered when the series began. Nor did anyone anticipate Kreider tripped from behind by Alexei Emelin on a breakaway colliding with Price to finish his postseason. Habs coach Michel Therrien charged that it was accidentally on purpose. Former Blueshirt Brandon Prust took it a step further. He also cheap shotted Stepan breaking his jaw. Stepan would return in the series wearing a full masked helmet to protect himself.
It was also the series where McDonagh took apart his former team. He had some huge games and that amounted to two easy Rangers wins with the series shifting back home. However, even with backup Dustin Tokarski in net, the Habs showed a lot of character. They took Game Three in overtime and played the Rangers very close in a nerve racking Game Four. It would again require sudden death.
Facing a pivotal moment in the series, the Rangers would prevail thanks to Marty St. Louis. On sheer hustle from Hagelin to keep a puck in, he passed it across to a wide open St. Louis, who was one-on-one with Tokarski. The future Hall of Famer made no mistake sending the puck upstairs past Tokarski’s glove for an emotional overtime winner. The Rangers took a 3-1 series lead back north.
After starting out okay, they soon fell victim to the House of Horrors as the Canadiens played well to stave off elimination. It would swing back to MSG for a Game Six. With Tokarski settling in, nobody wanted to see a Game Seven up in Montreal.
Somewhat predictably, the game was tightly played. You felt like one mistake would be all it would take either way. We knew it in the building sitting up in Section 411. With the game scoreless late in the second period, you could feel the nervous energy. When a breakdown allowed Thomas Vanek a great opportunity, he took a dangerous shot that Lundqvist stopped. The rebound took a funny hop off Girardi and dangerously close to the goal. That’s when Lundqvist made an acrobatic save by somehow managing to get his goalie stick on the rebound to keep it out. The crowd went nuts.
It was only a few minutes later that a great shift by the fourth line resulted in the only goal. When Boyle found Moore open, he didn’t miss beating Tokarski for the series clincher. The third was a little nervous to watch. But the Rangers played very well defensively the final part. It was an 18 save shutout for Lundqvist. When it was over, our section went crazy. People were hugging each other. It was pandemonium. I captured the electricity and excitement on my old phone.
The Prince of Wales Trophy was presented to the team. I don’t remember them touching it or carrying it off. It was such an emotional moment. I never thought we’d ever see a Stanley Cup game. Unfortunately, it was a bitter disappointment as they didn’t play well in Game Three after losing two gut wrenching games at Staples Center. Both times, they blew leads. And in each, they sat back against a very good Kings team, paying the price in OT. It stunk.
It wasn’t so much that they lost the Cup to the Kings. Rather how they lost. It really was a closely fought series even though it went five games. The problem was they never put the Kings away in any of the three games in Los Angeles. Jonathan Quick played very well. Lundqvist did too, but his team never scored a single goal in the third period. They were badly outshot in most except Game Four which they won. At least they didn’t lose on home ice.
The following year, the Rangers won the President’s Trophy and had home ice for the postseason. In a strange and challenging year that saw Lundqvist go down to a sprained blood vessel in his neck after taking a dangerous shot to the throat area, he actually played the next game. Holy moly. It was almost life threatening. Crazy. How did he play?
With Lundqvist out, Talbot took over the reigns and the team rallied behind him. With key deadline addition Keith Yandle, the team was feeling pretty good about their chances. With Brassard and Zuccarello emerging as go to guys along with Nash, the Rangers had two good scoring lines. Even without Boyle, who left for Tampa, they looked like a tough team that could go all the way. Even if Tanner Glass got so much flak. JT Miller and Jesper Fast were part of the roster. So was a rookie named Kevin Hayes.
If there was one subtle difference that didn’t work, it was the choice of veteran Dan Boyle to replace Stralman, who of course went to the Lightning. They aren’t called Rangers South for no reason. Boyle just never fit in. He wasn’t good defensively and older than Stralman, who was a better fit with Staal. The addition of Yandle helped the offense. In particular, the power play that Boyle was brought in for. But he didn’t play top unit for whatever reason. He also remained on the third pair.
Despite these questions, both Talbot and Lundqvist performed well. Each had five shutouts and posted similar numbers. Henrik even still won 30 games despite only making 46 starts. Talbot won 21 and Sabres master Mackenzie Skapski won the other two. His only two NHL wins. The team only lost 22 games in regulation, setting a franchise record with a 53-22-7 record for 113 points.
After taking care of the Pens in a rematch thanks to some Hagelin overtime theatrics, they faced the Caps in the second round. They also learned that a McDonagh incidental shot that Zuccarello took the helmet finished him for the postseason. A big blow. Little did we know how serious it was. It’s amazing Zuccarello came back from that. Wow.
Facing a determined Caps under Barry Trotz, who had them taking away the stretch pass and making it extremely tough, the Rangers fell behind 3-1 in the same round for a second consecutive year. With them struggling to score, it really looked over. Braden Holtby was proving to be difficult to beat. Lundqvist was doing his part, but a determined Alex Ovechkin was intent on winning this series. Especially against both Lundqvist and Girardi, who always was his shadow.
When they trailed by a goal late in Game Five, I looked over at my brother and told him they needed a miracle. The miracle came when through a rare transition with Lundqvist on the bench, Stepan pulled up and found Kreider open for a quick one-timer that got past Holtby to tie the game. In overtime, a great keep from Fast allowed Stepan to make a drop for McDonagh, who scored the overtime winner to send the place into bedlam.
One thing about those runs, they were fun and exciting. You never knew what was going to happen next. I can honestly say that I thought they were done. But there was no quit in that team. They had been in this predicament before. It had to help in the room and on the bench.
I knew they’d go into Washington and win Game Six. It was similar to how I felt the prior year. Only it got a little too close for comfort in a chaotic third that saw the Ovechkin Caps nearly tie it. Lundqvist prevented it to force a seventh game. They held on.
Game Seven was a classic. An Ovechkin laser beat Lundqvist from way out. It was a remarkable shot by an all-time great to give the Caps the lead. But a Hayes power play goal tied it up during the second.
Each goalie took turns making big saves to keep the game tied. They were both sensational. It was Holtby and Lundqvist putting on a show. Neither budged. The game needed OT. It would take a Washington icing and a stoppage to determine the winner. Off a Stepan face-off win, Yandle got the puck across for a Girardi shot that rebounded off Holtby right to Stepan, who buried it to send the Rangers to a second straight Conference Final. I didn’t go, but my family did. That must’ve been some time.
In the Eastern Conference Final, they faced a upstart Lightning team that featured Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and the Triplets of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. Former Blueshirts Callahan, Boyle and Stralman were part of it. Ben Bishop was the starter with a kid named Andrei Vasilevskiy the backup. On paper, I felt they would win a closely fought series due to their experience. Maybe I overlooked what the Caps took out of them.
With St. Louis struggling mightily, it really put Vigneault in a bind. Especially without Zuccarello, who we learned suffered a brain contusion and a slight skull fracture. He even needed a speech therapist to relearn how to speak. Crazy. The unbelievable aspect is there was even talk that if they got by the Lightning, Zuccarello could’ve returned for the Stanley Cup Final. He had started skating. Who knows.
What I do know is this series was very unpredictable. From game to game, there was no momentum or rhythm. Each team took turns alternating wins. Following a 5-1 win at Tampa to even the series at two apiece, the Rangers thought they had the momentum for a home Game Five. They were sadly mistaken.
There were no goals or offense to speak of in a flat and weird 2-0 shutout loss to the Lightning. Bishop stopped all 26 shots for the shutout while Lundqvist turned aside 20 of 22. Being there for that one, I never got the sense they’d score. That’s how well defensively the Lightning played. They really did a good job taking away the neutral zone that fueled the Rangers transition. Leaving the building, the city was eerily quiet. It honestly felt like a funeral.
The strange part was I knew they’d win Game Six. That’s the kind of resilient team they were. Sure enough, the Rangers had no problem scoring on Bishop chasing him for five goals on 26 shots. Vasilevskiy replaced him in a wild third that saw the Blueshirts turn a 2-1 contest into a 7-3 laugher. Lost amid the chaos was that Lundqvist made 36 saves. He was far better than Bishop to win another elimination game. Something he’d made a habit of.
Brassard has his best ever game recording a hat trick and two assists for five points. Nash exploded for a goal and three assists. Miller also had a four point game. A rare big playoff game for him until this past summer with the Canucks. You had to feel good headed into the deciding seventh game. But I felt guarded based on how the series was playing out.
All everyone talked about leading up to that game was the Rangers having never lost a home Game Seven at MSG along with Lundqvist’s great record in these big spots. The thing nobody understood is that each series takes on a life of its own. When the game was still scoreless through two periods, I was very nervous. I knew that was a bad sign. Maybe I could feel it coming.
Sure enough, Alex Killorn was able to sneak through a seeing eye shot past Lundqvist not even two minutes into the third. Right then, based on how the Lightning were playing, I knew they were screwed. As much as I kept holding out hope, Tampa coach Jon Cooper had his team taking away time and space. They kept the Rangers to the outside and allowed Bishop to see all 22 shots.
My frustration grew when Vigneault waited too long to switch up his lines. I would’ve put Kreider and Nash together sooner. Once Palat scored, it was over. There weren’t enough adjustments. Lundqvist took the heartbreaking loss finishing with 23 saves. For anyone that critiqued him for that uneven series, the Lightning had similar skill and experience with guys like Boyle, Callahan and Stralman coming in handy.
Simply put, they got beat as a team. The sad part is I really believe they could’ve won the Cup the Blackhawks did when they bested the Lightning in six. Not having Zuccarello hurt. We’ll never know what might’ve been. However, I didn’t know how hurt McDonagh, Girardi, Staal and Yandle were. They played through a lot of pain. True warriors.
It really was the end for those teams. Three Conference Finals and one trip to the Stanley Cup Final over four years. The window was closed. Even if Vigneault and management didn’t believe so.
You only get so many chances to win a championship. There’s this prevailing thought that they didn’t do enough to help Lundqvist win a Cup. I call that losers lament. So, in an era where the organization added stars like Marian Gaborik, Richards, Nash, St. Louis and Yandle, they didn’t add talent? Do these people know how much money and draft picks they sacrificed? Maybe Glen Sather could’ve done more to strengthen the fourth line in 2012. But it’s a silly notion to say they didn’t surround Lundqvist with good players.
Not every team wins. Even though they took one more kick at the can making the second round against a very beatable Ottawa team, they ultimately fell short due to more blown leads. After Lundqvist silenced the Montreal contingent by outplaying Price in a good first round series, he was outplayed by Craig Anderson. Go figure.
The difference with me is you’ll never see me pin the loss on him. The defensive minded Senators used a similar strategy that Tampa used. Vigneault should’ve got his team by them. Instead, it was a crushing loss that dashed one last hope of a fourth Conference Final. I doubt they would’ve beaten the Pens. But we’ll never know. Ottawa took them to sudden death of Game Seven before they won. That team with Phil Kessel added along with Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust won back-to-back Cups.
In retrospect, the first mistake was signing Kevin Shattenkirk after they dealt away key core piece Stepan to the Coyotes. At least that netted them Tony DeAngelo. It really felt like they didn’t do their homework on Shattenkirk, who is a good offensive defenseman that can’t play top pair. Nobody knew how hurt he was. He didn’t want let anyone down.
The end result was an awful year that saw the team issue a letter to the fans about rebuilding. That’s not what Shattenkirk took a home discount for. No wonder he despises them. Good for him on taking a huge discount to go win with the Lightning while ironically teaming with McDonagh on the second pair.
Of course with the team worsening, Lundqvist’s play slipped. Finally showing decline in his mid-30’s, it was apparent that the pecking order had changed. He was asked if he wanted to wave his no-movement clause. He didn’t. He loved being a New York Ranger. If that’s a crime, then go fire some blanks at empty beer cans. Mats Sundin was similar with Toronto. Though he did take one last shot with Vancouver.
As new coach David Quinn showed more confidence in backup Alex Georgiev the past two seasons, it became evident that this day was coming. Especially with Igor Shesterkin proving to be the next starter in net. When you can save so much on your goaltending in today’s cap, it makes all the
cents sense in the world.
What we are left with are the memories of a great goalie and one of the best Rangers to ever wear the jersey. Don’t ask me to rank Lundqvist. I refuse to do it because it’ll start up all these silly debates. The fact is he’s an all-time great Blueshirt and should make the Hockey Hall of Fame. Especially once they put in Luongo. I feel similarly on Curtis Joseph and wonder what the holdup is.
Not every great goalie wins a Cup. Whenever he decides to hang it up, just know that Henrik Lundqvist was that in the city that never sleeps. A good guy who cares and loved being a New Yorker. His work with charities including the Garden of Dreams that helps underprivileged kids is commendable. So too was his great support for New York’s Finest during a tumultuous time.
One day soon, we’ll get to celebrate seeing Number 30 hang from the Garden rafters. That will be a special night. Hopefully, the team will be back as a contender by then.
Thank you Henrik Lundqvist for 15 great years.