‘Hart Off The Ice’
By Sean Hartnett
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A victory can come in any shape or form.  It doesn’t have to be pretty and you don’t have to score four goals every night as the Rangers proved in Wednesday night’s shootout win over the Phoenix Coyotes.

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The Rangers peppered Mike Smith with 32 shots but were only able to squeak one regulation attempt past the Coyotes’ net-minder.  As Ringo Starr once sang, “It don’t come easy.”

That would have been an appropriate song to play over the Madison Square Garden loudspeakers after the Rangers earned a hard-fought two points.  It was a tense evening at ‘The World’s Most Famous Arena.’  At times, fans grew restless as the Blueshirts chipped away at Smith to no avail.

Even the shootout dragged on to six rounds as Henrik Lundqvist and Smith matched one another’s brilliance.  Neither man was going to surrender easily.  Eventually, shootout goals by Marian Gaborik and Derek Stepan lifted the Rangers to victory.

It didn’t matter to Captain Ryan Callahan how the Rangers won as he was pleased to notch another one in the win column.  He explained to me after the game, “I thought we played a pretty good game.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get as many goals we wanted to.  I thought we had the chances but two points is two points.”

Variety has been the spice of life for the Rangers’ and their winning ways.  One game, the goals are flowing and on another night like Thursday, you can run into a brick wall.  Either way, the one constant in the Blueshirts’ rise to their league-leading 58 points is the sensational play of Lundqvist.

No matter what kind of challenge is thrown in front of him, Lundqvist is able to lift his game.  Unlike ordinary goalies around the league, Lundqvist thrives in pressure situations.  You could probably go as far as saying that he welcomes the added stress of late game havoc and the spotlight of the shootout.

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Derek Stepan provided some insight on Lunqvist’s strong-willed mentality and ‘King Henrik’s’ ability to flourish in shootout situations.

When asked about Henrik’s rare characteristics, Stepan told me post-game, “Hank, he loves those shootouts.  He’s a competitive guy and arguably might be the best goalie in the league at them.  We practice them quite a bit.  When you go down on him, it’s hard to score on him.  It’s amazing to me that he can continually shut guys out like that.  That’s why he’s an All-Star goaltender.  It definitely makes our jobs easier.”

Lundqvist’s game-after-game heroics makes Rangers fans and reporters like myself wonder what he’ll do next for an encore.

At the Winter Classic, he stopped 34 Flyers’ shots including a vital penalty stop against sniper Danny Briere.  Last Friday in Pittsburgh, Lundqvist saved 37 shots in a game that the Penguins dominated in every aspect but the scoreboard.

The current seven-game win streak he’s carrying is the longest of his career. His impact on Rangers’ victories and microscopic goals against average of 1.85 could make him the first goalie to win the Hart Memorial Trophy since Jose Theodore claimed the award in 2002.

While Jonathan Quick of the Kings has had a fantastic season, he isn’t inspiring Los Angeles to victories the way Lundqvist does for the Rangers.  Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask have performed equally well for Boston but both have shared the burden between the pipes for the Bruins.  Brian Elliot’s surprising play for the St. Louis Blues has been one of the best stories around the league but it remains to be seen whether he can keep up his pace over a full season.

Lundqvist simply continues to galvanize the Blueshirts every single night.  Like Stepan, all we can really do is shake our head in disbelief at what Lundqvist is able to accomplish on a nightly basis.

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Rangers fans, what do you make of King Henrik’s ability to raise his game every night?  Is he a worthy Hart Trophy contender?  Share your opinions below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.