Rangers

Hartnett: Lundqvist’s Journey — From Draft Steal To Rangers’ Winningest Goalie

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist celebrates after earning his 300th career victory on March 9, 2014. (credit: Getty Images)

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist celebrates after earning his 300th career victory on March 9, 2014. (credit: Getty Images)

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‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

On Tuesday night in Ottawa, Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist eclipsed iconic netminder Mike Richter’s franchise record with his 302nd career victory.

The Rangers steamrolled the Senators in an all-offense goalfest, defeating Ottawa in an 8-4 rout. New York’s lamp-lighting outburst has calmed fears that their season was in a tailspin toward a finish out of the playoffs due to the perception that their slumping stars would not awaken during the final stretch.

Rick Nash and Derick Brassard each collected two goals in Tuesday’s demolition. Brassard broke a nine-game pointless drought in a three-point performance and Mats Zuccarello chipped in two assists.

Martin St. Louis nearly scored the first goal of his Rangers career. The Blueshirts’ fifth goal was initially credited to the 38-year-old before it was eventually awarded to defenseman Ryan McDonagh. St. Louis was able to register an assist on Brassard’s second goal. The veteran winger is currently doing everything right on the ice. He’s providing plenty of creativity and vision. It just hasn’t resulted in goals.

All of these are encouraging signs for the Blueshirts faithful, but the night truly belonged to Lundqvist. The 32-year-old virtuoso made 35 saves and improved his 2013-14 record to 26-22-4. Despite the lopsided final score, there were moments when Lundqvist changed the momentum with key saves.

With 12 games remaining in the regular season, the 37-29-4 Rangers have now reached 78 points and are currently holding an edge in the Metropolitan Division ahead of the fourth-place Columbus Blue Jackets.  The Blue Jackets have 76 points and two games in hand. Columbus hosts the Rangers on Friday night at Nationwide Arena.

No one is expecting the Rangers to cruise into the playoffs on a wave of one-sided victories, but their 8-4 win at Canadian Tire Centre was an important two points gained.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll find out whether the Rangers can claim a second- or third-place finish in the Metropolitan Division — gaining them an automatic playoff seed — or whether they’ll reach the playoffs through the wild card route. One thing’s for sure, having Lundqvist standing in net as the last line of defense gives the Rangers an advantage unlike any other of the Eastern Conference playoff contenders.

LUNDQVIST’S LONG JOURNEY

Long before he earned the complete adulation of Madison Square Garden devotees, scouts around the league were split on whether an 18-year-old Lundqvist had the characteristics of an NHL-caliber goalie.

It sounds crazy now given Lundqvist’s nine seasons of success, but he wasn’t considered a sure thing ahead of the 2000 Draft. Lundqvist had shined as Sweden’s No. 1 junior-team goalie, but some NHL teams were concerned by his overall lack of experience, his underwhelming play in his draft year and whether he intended to eventually play in North America.

Lundqvist flew to Calgary with identical twin brother, center Joel Lundqvist, ahead of the draft. The Dallas Stars selected Joel in the third round at 68th overall. Joel’s NHL career lasted 134 games before he re-joined Frölunda HC of the Swedish Hockey League. Both Henrik and Joel played for Frölunda during their youth. Joel currently serves as captain of the Indians.

European scout Jan Gajdosik, a man most Rangers fans probably aren’t familiar with, is responsible for the Blueshirts landing a franchise goaltender and an all-time draft steal in the seventh round as Lundqvist was selected by the Rangers at 205th overall.

Amazingly, 21 goaltenders were taken before Lundqvist. Outside of No. 1 overall pick Rick DiPietro, Ilya Bryzgalov and Dan Ellis, that group was made up of goalies that experienced little success or never even made it to the NHL.

Lundqvist would have continued to slide down the draft had Gajdosik not spotting something special in Henrik’s youth tournaments. Gajdosik urged the Rangers to take a close look at Lundqvist and sent the Rangers a report comparing his abilities to Dominik Hasek at the same age.

How true that comparison would turn out to be. Hasek was drafted at 199th overall in 1983. Both Hasek and Lundqvist went on to become two of the most spectacular, agile and cool-under-pressure goalies in NHL history.

‘DARK YEARS’ MIGHT HAVE CONTINUED, IF NOT FOR…

Scouting is a difficult-to-predict science. Rangers fans owe a very big thank you to Jan Gajdosik. If not for Gajdosik’s keen eye and the emergence of Lundqvist in his 2005-06 rookie season, “The Dark Years” might have lasted a lot longer.

From 1997-98 through the unplayed lockout season of 2004-05, the lights at Madison Square Garden were turned off come playoff time. Lundqvist ended the seven-year drought as the Rangers qualified for the 2006 playoffs. And they have only missed the playoffs once since, in 2009-10, when the Blueshirts’ season ended via a painful shootout loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in the final game.

From Day 1, Lundqvist has delivered hope to a once-downtrodden Rangers franchise and constantly illuminates “The World’s Most Famous Arena” through his spectacular, acrobatic and clutch play in net.

The Rangers are truly fortunate that Lundqvist fell into their lap in the seventh round in 2000.

Imagine what the Rangers might have become had that not been the case.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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