‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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Every time Henrik Lundqvist pulls on his mask, he’s carrying the hopes and dreams of Rangers’ fans on his back.
Lundqvist put pen to paper on a seven-year, $59.5 million extension in December because this is the only team and only city he’s ever wanted to represent.
This city has given Lundqvist an outpouring of adoration and the charming Swede is desperate to repay New Yorkers and the Rangers’ organization for their unwavering support.
“I really want to win the Cup here in New York. It’s my biggest goal and my biggest dream,” Lundqvist said in December. “Secondly, I want to be a Ranger for life. To picture myself anywhere else was just wrong and was never an option. I know there was some speculation over the summer, but from the heart — it was never an option to leave this club.”
New York and Lundqvist — together, forever. That kind of loyalty is heartening considering former captain Ryan Callahan recently opted to give the Blueshirts no choice but to deal him away on trade deadline day.
Callahan could have joined Lundqvist and stalwart defenseman Dan Girardi by amicably agreeing to a long-term extension. Instead, his path has taken a sudden turn into the unknown. Currently a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Callahan will likely test the free agent waters where some desperate, mediocre team may offer him a seven-year contract above $6.5 million per year with the full no-trade he desires. That’s a lot of financial security. However, it is unlikely to include the security of competitiveness that was once available to Callahan in New York.
Lundqvist and Girardi hitched their wagons to a Rangers franchise that is on the upswing thanks to the fresh, uptempo philosophies of head coach Alain Vigneault and one-sided heists completed in recent years by general manager Glen Sather.
That being said, the Rangers’ ultimate success will be tied to Lundqvist’s pads, blocker, trapper and stick. Together, Lundqvist has been able to transform his equipment into a symphony of acrobatic, agile and jaw-dropping saves all to the delight of the Garden faithful.
One of these years, Lundqvist is going to rise to a Dominik Hasek-level of playoff dominance. It won’t be long before he drinks from that magnificent silver chalice. Given the core in place supporting and protecting “The King,” Lundqvist’s date with Lord Stanley has been accelerated.
ONE MILESTONE DOWN, SEVERAL TEAM RECORDS IN SIGHT
The 31-year-old awe-inspiring netminder enjoyed a milestone day in front of his adoring fans on Sunday, as he reached the 300-win plateau with a 3-0 victory over the Detroit Red Wings.
“I started thinking about it after two periods,” Lundqvist said. “Why not go for a doughnut in this game and reach 300 wins? It was a good challenge for me.”
Teammate Brad Richards recognizes the incredible stability and consistency that Lundqvist brings to the Rangers’ organization.
“It’s great for him,” Richards said. “He’s been the face of the franchise and will continue to be that, and that’s why. He’s only been in the league eight or nine years and it seems like it’s 30 or 40 wins each year. That’s stability for the organization and a great accomplishment for him.”
Lundqvist understands what he’s playing for when he pulls on the Rangers’ historic Original Six sweater. He’s seen the legends pass through the hallowed halls of MSG.
“The Rangers are so good about paying tribute to the old guys and the legends they’ve had here,” Lundqvist said. “They come in once in a while, you get to see them and you’re constantly getting reminded of what they did for this organization, which I think is great.”
On Sunday, Lundqvist tied Ed Giacomin for the franchise lead in career regular season shutouts with 49. He is now only a single victory away from equaling Mike Richter’s franchise record for regular season wins.
“It’s a great feeling to be up there with those guys,” Lundqvist said. “This organization has been around for so long so to be up there with them, it’s very special and I am proud just thinking about it. I have been lucky. I have been able to be here for almost nine years and play with great defensemen in front of me and teammates and good structure of the years to help me reach that.”
Lately, Lundqvist has been especially stingy between the pipes, holding opponents to two goals or less in 12 of his last 17 games.
Should Lundqvist continue that rate into June, perhaps he will finally deliver that long-awaited Stanley Cup parade sequel through the streets of Manhattan, 20 years after Richter etched his name into history.
When Derek Stepan returned from the Olympics, he expressed to Vigneault his burning desire to take on greater responsibilities with the Rangers.
“When Step came back from the Olympics after not having played very much and when I met with him the first day back, that’s one of the things he told me,” Vigneault said. “He wanted to step up and he wanted to play more minutes. He wanted to take a bigger role and assume more responsibilities and I think he’s shown that he can do it and I want him to continue to do it.”
The 23-year-old center was rarely given a chance to shine on the Sochi stage. He was often a healthy scratch by Team USA head coach Dan Bylsma.
Prior to boarding the plane to Sochi, Stepan was struggling to replicate last season’s productivity. Since returning to NHL play, Stepan has enjoy six-game point streak, featuring eight assists.
He assisted on each of linemate Chris Kreider’s two goals during Sunday’s victory. Stepan appears to be getting his all-around game back on track. His turnaround has the potential to be a huge positive for the Rangers with only 17 regular season games remaining.
PENALTY KILL IS IN LOCK-DOWN MODE
On Sunday, the Rangers’ went 3-for-3 on the kill.
Over their past six games, the Rangers have killed of 15 of 16 man-down situations. The Blueshirts’ shorthanded specialists have not allowed a power-play goal in their past four games.
Stepan, Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis are playing in all situations and have taken on significant roles killing penalties.
The trio has joined penalty killing mainstays Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore, Marc Staal, Anton Stralman and Carl Hagelin to form one of the hottest units in the league.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey
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