As sure as I am that Derek will eventually post a Lundqvist remembrance piece worthy of his NHL HOF career, I’m just as sure it’s near impossible for him to do it today, on what’s surely an emotional day for all Ranger fans. In the meantime you have me, the Devils fan and I’ll do the best I can. To be sure, while I was never a fan of Lundqvist per se, he was the rival you loved to hate so to speak – though not actually hating him deep down (with one brief exception of the ill-advised victory lap he took around the Prudential Center after beating the Devils in the 2008 playoffs). There was always respect involved, grudging at times but how could you not admire the resume he carved out in the greatest league in the world? Especially given the odds he overcame just to make the NHL as an unheralded seventh round pick out of Sweden in 2000, much less to put together the career he did.
I didn’t even remember till I looked it up that Lundqvist’s NHL debut actually came against the Devils in October of 2005 – a 3-2 OT loss. Although Lundqvist began the season as a backup to Kevin Weekes, he eventually took the #1 job and never let it go, looking at his numbers from that rookie season (30-12-9, 2.24 GAA and .922 save percentage) I was wondering how he didn’t win the Calder trophy that year. Of course after I looked it up, oh yeah it was just some dude named Ovechkin who won it with a 50+ goal, 100+ point season. Which brings to mind all the playoff wars Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals and Lundqvist’s Rangers battled in, I’m sure Derek will have more on that individual and team playoff rivalry somewhere in his retrospective too.
While outsiders – yes myself included – at times smirked at the ‘King’ moniker Ranger fans bestowed upon Lundqvist early in his career, he really was that for a generation of Ranger fans. He was the symbol of the Rangers for over a decade through thick and thin, like Patrick Ewing of an earlier era for Knick fans. Of course neither would win a title in the pros though both achieved championship success at other levels – for Ewing it was an NCAA title in 1984 at Georgetown, for Lundqvist it was Olympic success in 2006 for Sweden, with a tense 3-2 win over rival Finland in Turin to win the gold medal game.
While it’s probably a bit bittersweet for Ranger fans that Lundqvist’s biggest triumph came on the international stage, it did prepare him for the crucible of the NHL playoffs, where he compiled a 6-2 record with an unbelievable 1.11 GAA and .967 save percentage in eight career playoff Game 7’s. I don’t care what team you root for, that’s hat-tip worthy. That’s clutch. If it was as easy for individual players to win a title in the NHL as it is (at times) in the NBA, Lundqvist would have carried the Rangers to a Cup. He almost did on a couple of occasions – the Rangers had their best chances to win a Cup when they made the Conference Finals three times in a four-year stretch from 2011-2015. After winning two straight series that went to Game 7 in 2012, the Rangers finally succumbed to the Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals after a Game 6 OT stunner.
After an off year in the lockout season of 2013, the Rangers replaced John Tortorella with Alain Vigneault and the coaching change helped produce the Rangers’ deepest playoff run since 1994, again beginning the playoffs with two consecutive series that went the distance (and two more Game 7 wins for Lundqvist against the rival Flyers and Penguins, the latter coming after falling behind 3-1 in the series). Then came what was clearly the high point for Lundqvist as a Ranger, a Conference Finals win over the Canadiens with a 1-0 clincher at the Garden in Game 6 after a second-period goal from fan favorite Dominic Moore provided the only offense Lundqvist needed.
Of course much like my Devils two years earlier, the less said about the Stanley Cup Finals with the Kings, the better. That series could have been different if any of the Rangers three(!) OT losses went another way, just like the Devils’ 2012 series wound up hinging on the first two games that were both OT losses. Such is life as a hockey fan. It was in 2014-15 that they won the President’s Trophy for the first time since ’93-94 when the Rangers got back to the Conference Finals yet again, but this time they were shut out at home in Game 7 by a younger, ascendant Lightning team and their slow decline started after that. Things could have gotten messy at the end with a rebuilding Ranger team eventually replacing Lundqvist with young Igor Shesterkin in goal, but to his credit he never complained as far as I could tell from the outside. Even being a proud competitor that wanted to play and win.
Hence came Lundqvist’s departure from the Rangers after the 2019-20 season for Washington both to play and to give himself one last chance to win an elusive Cup, but unfortunately for all involved, a heart ailment sidelined him from playing at all last season and eventually led to his decision to retire today. Derek might not say it but I will, even though we both hope for the best for the man healthwise, I’m kind of glad he was just a paper Capital and only wound up playing for the Rangers after all – especially given all of those teams’ playoff wars including 2009 when the Caps came from 3-1 back to beat them on a Game 7 goal from Sergei Federov(!) plus 2012 and 2013 when the Rangers scratched and clawed past them, also in Game 7 each time. They’ve had at least one or two more playoff series besides and countless regular season division matchups.
As it stands, the book is closed on Lundqvist’s career with 459 NHL wins (not including another 61 in the playoffs), and a career 2.43 GAA and .918 save percentage. Those numbers got even better in the postseason with a career 2.30 GAA and .921 save percentage in 130 career playoff games.
An honor well deserved, as will his induction to the HHOF in Toronto one day will be.