By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers got what they deserved during Wednesday’s defeat to the visiting Chicago Blackhawks. That is, everyone except franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
Lundqvist’s collection of highlight-reel saves gave the Blueshirts a chance to win heading into the second intermission. The Blackhawks outshot the Rangers 26-14 through 40 minutes, but the game was tied at 2.
Despite Lundqvist’s best efforts, Chicago went on to a 5-2 victory, with two of its goals in the final period scored into an empty net.
For 60 minutes, the Rangers failed to connect the dots and were unable to match the underachieving Blackhawks’ energy and desperation. New York mostly moved the puck carelessly and tossed away ample power play opportunities, finishing 1-for-6.
“I saw one team playing hockey and the other chasing the whole night,” Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh said. “It’s really disappointing. We know we are coming off a big emotional win and a big stage, but we’re almost at the halfway point of the season where we need to start playing with some consistency and we didn’t give ourselves a chance there. They were able to do whatever they wanted. We didn’t finish checks, slow them down, their speed. They had time and space and we left our goalie out to dry.
“We weren’t battling, moving our feet,” he added. “I mean we were slow. It was really tough to see. You come in here, you try and say some things and get it turned around, but it can’t be one or two guys trying to make a difference. We need everybody on the same page out there playing at the same level of intensity.”
A vintage performance by Lundqvist was wasted. His helmet save on Patrick Kane and his sprawling stop on Nick Schmaltz in the first period kept the game scoreless. Later in the second, his double save on Brandon Saad and Jonathan Toews preserved a 1-1 tie. His heroics between the pipes should have added up to the 424th win of his great career.
Had that been the case, Lundqvist would have broken a tie with Blackhawks icon and Hall of Famer Tony Esposito and moved into sole possession of eighth place on the all-time NHL wins list. That honor will have to wait for another day.
As soon as Lundqvist earns win 424, he won’t be far from fifth place. He is currently on pace to record an additional 19 victories this season. Should he get to 37, he would be three away from tying Terry Sawchuk for sixth place all-time at 445. (He’d pass legendary Jacques Plante along the way)
Sawchuk and Esposito were appropriately named to the list of the NHL’s 100 Greatest Players. Oddly, the “blue ribbon panel” of media, executives, and NHL alumni who selected the NHL 100 omitted Lundqvist, perhaps the greatest Ranger of all-time and, arguably, the greatest goalie of his era.
He Deserves More Respect
Outside of The Garden’s corridors and the legion of fans who chant “Hen-rik, Hen-rik,” the shot-stopping Swede hasn’t gotten the kind of respect on the national level that his numbers and importance to the Rangers should command. Seven consecutive seasons of at least a .920 save percentage, followed by a .910 hiccup last season, and a .922 return to form this season speak to Lundqvist’s remarkable consistency.
And let’s not forget his Vezina Trophy in 2012 and three All-Star game appearances.
Since Devils legend Martin Brodeur’s peak ended in 2010, Lundqvist has carried the torch as the NHL’s generational goalie. Since his debut, no netminder has recorded more wins (423), saves (20,301), or shutouts (63). Among goaltenders to play at least 425 games over the same stretch, no one has posted a better save percentage than Lundqvist’s .920.
There hasn’t been any regression in Lundqvist’s game this season. He shook off the 2016-17 regular season to post a sparkling .927 mark in the playoffs. According to Hockey Reference, Lundqvist ranks fifth among all NHLers in point shares this season (7.0) and fourth among goalie point shares.
Assuming Lundqvist reaches 20 wins this season, he would become the first goaltender in NHL history to earn at least that many in each of his first 13 seasons. He would also become the first goaltender to record at least 20 wins in 13 consecutive seasons at any point during the course of a career.
Rangers Have Repeatedly Failed To Equip Him
Brodeur had two Hall of Fame defensemen skating in front of him for the bulk of his career in Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer. Patrick Roy began his career with Hall of Famers Larry Robinson and Chris Chelios patrolling the Montreal Canadiens’ blue line and ended it with two more in Ray Bourque and Rob Blake — not to mention a pair of Hall of Fame centers in Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic — for the entirety of his stay in Colorado.
Since Lundqvist entered the league in 2005, the only All-Star defensemen who have played in front of him have been Marc Staal (2011), Dan Girardi (2012), and Ryan McDonagh (2016). The closest thing he’s ever had to a Hall of Fame blue liner was an elderly version of Dan Boyle.
Lundqvist’s career started too late for him to play alongside Hall of Famers Brian Leetch, Mark Messier, or Eric Lindros, though he did play with Brendan Shanahan for two of the Hall of Fame left wing’s three final seasons. Jaromir Jagr, who will undoubtedly find his way into that building in Toronto, spent three-and-a-half seasons alongside Lundqvist at The Garden, setting the single-season franchise records for goals (54) and points (123) in the process. Martin St. Louis, another likely Hall of Famer, played his final two seasons for the Blueshirts. Brad Richards is a bubble candidate.
In only three seasons did Lundqvist have teammate(s) who finished at or above a point per game — Jagr (1.5) and Martin Rucinsky (1.06) in 2005-06; Jagr (1.17) and Michael Nylander (1.05) in 2006-07; Marian Gaborik (1.13) in 2009-10.
How many seasons did Lundqvist have 30-goal teammate(s)? Five — Jagr (54) and Petr Prucha (30) in 2005-06; Jagr (30) in 2006-07; Gaborik (42) in 2009-10; Gaborik (41) in 2011-12; Rick Nash (42) in 2014-15.
Through it all, Lundqvist has carried superstar-deprived Rangers teams to the playoffs in 11 of 12 completed seasons. The only time he has missed the postseason was due to losing to the Philadelphia Flyers via a shootout in the final game of the 2009-10 season. Perhaps if John Tortorella selected Gaborik over Olli Jokinen as his final shooter, Lundqvist’s playoff-qualifying record would be perfect. The Rangers missed the playoffs that season by a single point.
Without Hall of Fame defensemen and lacking go-to scorers, Lundqvist has been left with the burden to will his teams to greatness. That hasn’t changed over the last three seasons. Mats Zuccarello was the Rangers’ leading point-getter in 2015-16 with 61 and last season with 59. This season, Zuccarello is on pace to lead the Rangers with 63.
It has been long overdue for Lundqvist to be surrounded by a championship-caliber supporting cast. If that help never comes, the Rangers will have largely wasted the efforts of a tremendous goaltender who miraculously fell into their lap in the seventh round of the 2000 NHL Draft.
Please follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey