Hartnett: Fear Drove Lundqvist To Summon His Best, Keeping Rangers Alive
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By Sean Hartnett
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Before Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, Madison Square Garden received delivery boxes full of Los Angeles Kings championship T-shirts and hats. Phil Pritchard, the keeper of the Stanley Cup, shined the famous silver chalice in preparation for a potential center-ice presentation.
Almost everything was in place for a Kings’ Stanley Cup celebration at “The World’s Most Famous Arena.” The exception being Henrik Lundqvist and the hosting Rangers, who refused to allow the Kings the opportunity to parade Lord Stanley across their home ice.
The fear of seeing the Kings lift the Cup at the Garden fueled Lundqvist’s desire.
“We didn’t want to see the Cup coming out on our home ice,” Lundqvist said. “Just the thought of it would make me sick.”
Lundqvist incredibly made 40 saves in the Rangers’ 2-1 victory. The sensational Swede stood tall in the face of a third-period onslaught, as the Kings outshot the Rangers 15-1 during the final frame.
“It’s about competing,” Lundqvist said. “When everything is on the line, you just have to challenge yourself the right way, I guess, as a team and personally. You have to go out there and leave everything out there and be extremely focused. One mistake and the season is over. You’re definitely aware of that.”
Staring down the prospect of elimination, Lundqvist raised his game to an elite level. Questions were being asked about Lundqvist, who was 0-3 with a 3.14 goals-against average and .892 save percentage entering Game 4.
It did not matter whether puck-luck or poor play was the culprit for Lundqvist’s bloated numbers through three Stanley Cup Final games. Wednesday night’s performance was further evidence that Lundqvist is near unbeatable when he’s asked to raise his game in potential elimination games.
“I think he elevates his game every single night,” teammate Rick Nash said. “Obviously, in elimination games we need him to be his best, and he was. He’s our leader and he’s a guy that we look to. He’s our best player.”
Lundqvist is now 8-0 in elimination games at Madison Square Garden.
The 32-year-old netminder did get a little help from his friends, as both Anton Stralman and Derek Stepan made key goal-line clearances.
STRALMAN FINALLY GETS HIS DUE
Head coach Alain Vigneault praised the vital role that Stralman has played for the Blueshirts throughout their incredible run.
“Anton plays top minutes,” Vigneault said. “He’s been real steady managing the puck. He’s defended really well. He’s really an important player for us.”
Stralman has brought a level of game-to-game consistency that has been unmatched by any other Rangers defenseman, including Ryan McDonagh.
The criminally-underrated Swede’s quiet game is finally standing out on the Stanley Cup Final stage. Stralman brings many positive attributes to the table. He’s excellent in possession and moves the puck up ice with an assured coolness. The 5-foot-11 defenseman has been an expert penalty killer and has delivered a number of textbook hip checks throughout the series.
Despite getting scarce minutes on the power play, Stralman has the capability of being a valuable power-play quarterback. Yet, Vigneault has been head-scratchingly unwilling to trust Stralman with that role.
As an upcoming unrestricted free agent, general manager Glen Sather would need to do some clever salary-cap maneuvering to keep Stralman in a Rangers uniform beyond the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. Stralman is expected to receive four-year contract offers beyond $4 million in annual average value should he hit the free-agent market.
It’s clear, though, that the Rangers desperately need Stralman in the present and for the long-term. There will be a gaping hole in their defense should he leave via unrestricted free agency.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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