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Hartnett: Forget The Vezina, Lundqvist Has Eyes Set On Hart Trophy

'King Henrik' Reaching Hasek-Like Level
Jason Pominville of the Buffalo Sabres try to get a shot off after Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers makes a save at HSBC Arena. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

Jason Pominville of the Buffalo Sabres try to get a shot off after Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers makes a save at HSBC Arena. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

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‘Hart Off The Ice’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

Going into the 2011-12 season, I thought I knew everything about Henrik Lundqvist.  To my surprise, it turned out that I was wrong… very wrong.

Like most established players around the NHL, I believed that Lundqvist had already plateaued.  My opinion was that he was a consistent All-Star-level goaltender who was capable of competing with any netminder around the league for Vezina Trophy honors.

Winning the Vezina Trophy would be a tremendous achievement, one that Lundqvist yet to earn in his seven-year NHL career.  In recent seasons, the award has been split between Martin Brodeur, Tim Thomas and last night’s adversary in net for the Buffalo Sabres, Ryan Miller.

Lundqvist had a game for the ages as he outdueled an exceptional Miller, again providing evidence why should not only be considered for the Vezina but also the Hart Memorial Trophy.

With the Rangers’ struggling powerplay reaching new levels of futility at the First Niagara Center, Lundqvist had to be sharp as a tack not only for 60 regulation minutes but also overtime and five shootout rounds. At one point, Lundqvist and the Blueshirts’ penalty killers had to fend off a 5-on-3 Sabres’ powerplay.

Henrik made a number of highlight-reel stops but his sprawling glove save against Brad Boyes in the shootout should rank among contenders for the NHL’s ‘save of the season.’

Just ask Rangers’ defenseman Michael Del Zotto who shared his enthusiasm on Twitter following the game@MichaelDelZotto: “@HLundqvist30 hen-ry, hen-ry! Save of the year.”

Even the usually methodical John Tortorella couldn’t help but admit that Lundqvist has raised his game up a notch.

“I don’t think he’s been at this level. He’s improved this year,” Tortorella said, after exchanging a fist pump with Lundqvist in the locker room. “If you want to get to where you want to be, you need goaltending like that.  He’s certainly provided that.”

It might not sound like high acclaim on paper, but it takes a lot for Tortorella to lavish praise upon his players in front of reporters.

Nearly every night that Lundqvist takes his place between the pipes, he finds a new way to leave his opponents, coaches, teammates and writers like myself in complete awe.

Whether it was his stellar performance against the Flyers at the Winter Classic, taming of the high-powered Penguins in early January, rising to the challenge of defeating the mighty Bruins in Boston or tonight’s effort in Buffalo, Lundqvist has continued a habit of leaving his observers more impressed with each passing game.

It’s almost like Henrik is attempting to replicate the sensational play of two-time Hart Trophy winner Dominik Hasek during the mid-to-late 1990’s.  With all due respect to Martin Brodeur, I’m not sure if he’s even had an individual season quite like the one that Lundqvist is currently enjoying.

If the season were to end today, Lundqvist would set the all-time single season save percentage record at .9393.  His six shutouts are even with Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings for the most in the NHL.  Lundqvist also ranks second place in goals against average in 2011-12, only trailing St. Louis’ Brian Elliott who has appeared in 14 less games.

3 weeks ago, I presented a case for why Lundqvist should be considered for the 2012 Hart Trophy.  Since then, my belief has only grown stronger.  Whenever I’m searching for online news articles on Lundqvist, I find a growing number of hockey writers coming to the realization that ‘King Henrik’ is indeed Hart Trophy-worthy.

One problem… it isn’t a popular practice to award goalies the Hart Trophy.  Jose Theodore taking award in 2002 is still a hotly-debated topic.  Theodore and Jarome Iginla were tied on voting points that season but the former Canadiens’ netminder won the Hart Trophy based upon first-place votes.

My hope is that members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association will follow the lead of the Baseball Writers Association of America.  The BWAA broke from tradition at the end of the 2011 season by electing Detroit Tigers’ starting pitcher Justin Verlander as the MLB’s Most Valuable Player.

Last season, there wasn’t an obvious candidate that stuck out in my mind among NHL skaters.  Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks ended up beating out Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin by 83 votes.  If I was privileged enough to have voted in 2011, my first place selection would have gone to Tim Thomas.

In 2010-11, Thomas set the all-time NHL regular season record for save percentage with a mark of .9382.  Yet somehow, he only commanded enough votes to finish 5th overall in the 2011 Hart Trophy voting.  Nashville’s Pekka Rinne finished ahead of Thomas at 4th place as voters determined that Rinne was more valuable to the Predators.

It’s difficult not to appreciate Lundqvist’s indispensable value to the Rangers.  He’s covered up the Blueshirts’ offensive blemishes and their dire powerplay which has gone a combined 2-for-29 over their last 12 games.

Without a doubt, ‘King Henrik’ is having a rare season from a goaltender that warrants considerable Hart Trophy attention.

Rangers fans, do you believe Lundqvist is the standout candidate for the Hart Trophy?  Share your opinions below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.