By Sean Hartnett
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Resiliency is what separates good goaltenders from the great ones.
The man between the pipes can have off-the-charts reflexes, rapid lateral movement and the acrobatics of an Olympic gymnast, but none of that matters if a crisis of confidence takes over.
Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist did not sink into a pit of despair after allowing seven goals on 27 shots in last Tuesday’s 7-6 defeat to the Dallas Stars. Sure, he appeared to be pressing and his confidence may have taken a hit as he deviated from maintaining his square positioning and began to chase, but it was only temporary.
“If you’re not in the right place (mentally), you start making technical mistakes,” Lundqvist said after the loss.
Uncertainty is the No. 1 enemy of goaltenders. Trouble happens when they stray from their technical base. Any kind of deviation in their thought process can play havoc with their game.
The question being posed by Rangers fans is whether or not Lundqvist can return to being the elite-level goaltender he has been over the past 11 seasons. At age 34, he has started to develop a habit of not making routine saves. His .904 save percentage pales in comparison to his career average of .920.
However, Lundqvist has appeared to rediscover his mojo of late. He stopped 23 of 25 shots in a 5-2 victory at Toronto on Thursday and followed that up with a 21-save performance in Sunday’s 1-0 overtime win in Detroit. The math of over those two contests reveals a collective .956 save percentage, clear evidence of how he’s reading plays and tracking the puck.
“A rough patch for him is very little time,” captain Ryan McDonagh said of Lundqvist earlier this season. “He’s a guy who is constantly aware of where his game is at and constantly finding ways to get himself to play at a high level, which is incredibly hard to do.”
The Rangers (30-16-1) are currently positioned in the first wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, but have 35 games left to lift themselves up the Metropolitan Division ladder. Lundqvist will almost certainly be asked to do all the heavy lifting for the time being. Backup netminder Antti Raanta is unavailable due to a lower-body injury and is unlikely to return before the Jan. 26-30 All-Star break, according to head coach Alain Vigneault. Magnus Hellberg is serving as understudy in Raanta’s stead, but the 6-foot-6 Swede, who is all of 25, has only appeared in three NHL games in his career.
In all likelihood, Lundqvist will start the remaining two games prior to the break. Both will be tough tests against big-bodied teams that crash the crease, starting with the Los Angeles Kings on Monday at Madison Square Garden. The always antagonistic Philadelphia Flyers come to town on Wednesday.
Lundqvist is capable of getting back to his best because his most valuable trait is mental strength. He thrives in the face of pressure, as has been the case of late with Raanta not around to lighten his workload. Lundqvist looked very much like “King Henrik” against the Leafs and Wings, but the Kings and Flyers will do everything possible to disrupt him by throwing bodies to the net in an attempt to take away his vision.
“If history is anything, he’ll find his groove and be the great goaltender that he is,” Vigneault predicted last week. “The fact that he has been able to get dialed-in and locked-in and be the great goaltender that he is makes us all believe that it’s just a matter of time before he finds the consistency level that we need, that he needs and our team needs.”
On Sunday, Lundqvist became the first goaltender in NHL history to record at least 20 wins in each of his first 12 seasons. Traditionally, Lundqvist has had his share of hot and cold stretches, but he has typically found his A-game before the playoffs, as his save percentage almost always ends up right in line with his career average.
Lundqvist been money in the bank for an awfully long time and there’s little evidence to bet against him, even with his 35th birthday approaching. He has been in trying situations before and clawed his way out by summoning his best game whenever he has been doubted.
There’s no reason to think he won’t continue his current upward trend.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey