By Steve Lichtenstein
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As a longtime Rangers hater, someone who once rooted for the Russians to rout the Broadway Blues during their tours many years ago, I always found goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s nickname disturbing.
I mean, if Lundqvist is “The King,” what is Martin Brodeur, the Devils’ three-time Cup champion and the owner of nearly every goaltending record in the books? Is he “The Deity”?
Lundqvist may be royalty in his native Sweden for backstopping the country to an Olympic gold medal in 2006, but his NHL playoff record coming into this postseason was a rather common 25-30.
Now I know that Lundqvist is a fantastic goalie, certainly worthy of consideration for a second straight Vezina Trophy. That was never the issue.
In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, however, it’s the team with the hot goalie that gets crowned.
After posting his second consecutive elimination-game shutout on Monday night, a 5-0 Rangers victory in Washington, Lundqvist is heating up at the right time to make his most assertive claim yet to the throne.
The Rangers, 4-3 series winners over the Capitals, move on to face Boston — a team that Lundqvist has pretty much owned throughout his career — in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Against Washington, Lundqvist stopped the final 62 shots on goal he faced. With his butterfly style and 6-foot-2 frame, Lundqvist was a wall in the net. You weren’t going to beat him without a deflection if he could see the puck.
Unlike the Capitals’ Braden Holtby, who picked the wrong time to spring leaks.
Holtby allowed the often offensively-challenged Rangers to ice Monday night’s game by surrendering a couple of softies to Arron Asham and Michael Del Zotto that contributed to his team’s 3-0 hole after two periods.
Nothing will send you packing in the playoffs faster than poor goaltending. In Pittsburgh, the Penguins have talent oozing out of every stall in their locker room, but had to sweat out their first-round series with the eighth-seeded Islanders when starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was afflicted by a case of the yips. They escaped in six games only because backup Tomas Vokoun was stellar in relief while the Islanders had no one to pick up after Evgeni Nabokov’s ineffectiveness.
It didn’t matter that the Islanders outplayed Pittsburgh in the two crucial overtime games that decided the series. The Islanders failed to convert on numerous glorious opportunities while the Penguins cashed in when they needed it.
The Rangers, instead of through a quick-strike offense, rely on Lundqvist to keep games within reach. I’ve seen them steal many a game in which they were outshot something like 40-17, provided Lundqvist was on and they got a bounce or two.
The Rangers beat the favored Caps despite a combined one goal and two assists from their star forwards Rick Nash and Brad Richards. Sure, they got a huge series from trade-deadline acquisition Derick Brassard, who posted nine points over the final five games, but the Rangers advanced on Lundqvist’s back.
He was magnificent all through the third period of Game 6, when the Rangers were desperately trying to preserve a 1-0 lead. Lundqvist robbed Eric Fehr with a glove snatch of a wrister from the high slot with under four minutes remaining, and then, as the clock ticked down to zero, he managed to extend his right leg to thwart John Carlson’s slap shot from the right point.
Lundqvist was in the Capitals’ head all last night. He stoned Mike Green on a mini-break six minutes into the first period, which led to Asham’s goal on the ensuing rush.
Playing with the lead, the Rangers did an excellent job most of the night, keeping the Capitals to the outside. Lundqvist was more solid than spectacular, with perfect positioning foiling every Washington scoring opportunity.
There were a few challenges in the third period as the Caps looked to spoil the shutout, but Lundqvist stopped them all, including Jason Chimera’s chance from alone in front of the net with over 13 minutes remaining.
The Capitals, who have a long history of coming up short in the postseason, gave due credit to Lundqvist, who knocked them out in a seventh game for the second straight year.
This after one-hit wonder Michal Neuvirth outdueled Lundqvist three years ago in a five-game Washington first-round victory.
You see, the hot goalie is no longer a divine right. The previous two Cup-winning goalies, Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick and Chicago’s Antti Niemi, were relatively unknown quantities at the start of the playoffs compared to the days of Ken Dryden-to-Billy Smith-to-Grant Fuhr.
It’s only the second round, but the Rangers have to be feeding off the momentum provided by Lundqvist’s turn. If he keeps it up, I could be put in position to admit that Lundqvist did indeed earn his crown.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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