‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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Two Olympian netminders proceeded to put on a spectacle for all in attendance at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.
For 54 minutes, Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers and Jimmy Howard of the Detroit Red Wings dared one another to top the other’s spellbinding, highlight-reel saves.
It was the hockey equivalent of two starting pitchers both determined to go the distance to earn a shutout. Howard finally cracked in the top of the ninth, before Lundqvist put a bow on the 48th shutout of his career.
“It was a tight game,” Rangers alternate captain Marc Staal said. “He was playing well, but Hankie was better.”
Lundqvist has recorded sparkling statistics in his past five games. “King Henrik” is 4-1-0 with a 1.40 goals-against average and .957 save percentage over the Rangers’ recent stretch that began with a belief-inspiring victory over the Blackhawks in Chicago.
The sensational Swede is 6-2-1 with a 2.08 GAA and .935 save percentage in his last nine appearances.
Any thought of Lundqvist having a rare “off-year” was buried at the United Center on January 8.
Right now, Lundqvist is 16-17-3 overall with a 2.58 GAA through 37 games in 2013-14. Expect his win totals and save percentage to trend upward and his goals-against average to even out somewhere close to his 2.27 career average.
LUNDQVIST IS LETTING HIS NATURAL ABILITIES TAKE OVER
The biggest difference in Lundqvist’s turnaround is that he’s not trying to do too much. Perhaps the burden of signing a lucrative seven-year, $59.5 million extension was forcing Lundqvist to overcompensate.
Throughout Thursday’s 38-save shutout performance, Lundqvist’s positioning was very sound. His movements were natural. He was allowing his abilities and instincts to take over.
“I’m more patient,” Lundqvist said. “When I’m more patient, then I stop more pucks. So, it’s going in the right direction.”
No save was more vital that when Lundqvist reached out with his glove to ensure a rolling puck didn’t cross his goal line with 44.3 seconds remaining in regulation. It’s not pointed out enough that goalies sometimes use their hearing to determine where a puck is going when they lose sight of the rubber biscuit.
Lundqvist did not hear the familiar ping of the post. So he knew the puck was somewhere behind him.
“You kind of wait for a reaction when you hear it hits the post, but then you don’t get a reaction so you know it’s behind you somewhere,” Lundqvist said. “So, you don’t want to make too big of a move. I just turned around and it was right there. It’s fun when you get some puck luck, and maybe I earned it after a few tough bounces.”
His counterpart, Howard, was forced into making a remarkable 47 saves. While the Rangers pinned the Red Wings in their own zone and unloaded a barrage of second-period shots, the Blueshirts suffered the occasional breakdown. The determined Lundqvist stood tall.
“We had a lot of the play in that second period,” Staal said. “We were all over them for a good stretch. Then we had a couple breakdowns and he came up with some big saves to keep it even.”
ZUCCARELLO CONTINUES TO BE A GOOD-LUCK CHARM
The lone goal was “scored” by Mats Zuccarello with 5:58 remaining in the third period.
Zuccarello had intended to connect with linemate Benoit Pouliot and admitted his goal took a “lucky bounce.”
“It was a pass to Pouliot,” Zuccarello said. “Lucky bounce, I guess. I’ll take that, for sure.”
The goal was undoubtedly the product of luck, but Zuccarello has a knack for getting to the right places and is being rewarded for his awareness and instincts.
“He was buzzing all night. It was nice that he got it,” Staal said.
Carl Hagelin understands why Zuccarello is producing the best statistical season of his career with 12 goals and 22 assists for 34 points through 48 games.
“He’s been extremely good,” Hagelin said. “He’s been really hard on the puck and he’s been creating chances offensively. That’s why he’s doing so well right now.”
Zuccarello has nine points (four goals and five assists) in the last 10 games. He’s now tied with Brad Richards and Chris Kreider with a team-leading 12 goals this season.
Every now and then, players get a lucky goal. Zuccarello has proven that he usually makes his own luck through determination, vision and skill.
You can follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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