It’s probably a toss-up as to what was more surprising – the way Henrik Lundqvist was playing going into Thursday night or how deeply it seemed to affect him. As far as the former was concerned, it was ugly. Really ugly. And the nadir for Lundqvist came Tuesday night when the New York Rangers faithful, who have had a decade-long love affair with Lundqvist, gave him the Bronx cheer in a terrible game against the Dallas Stars.
All of which pretty much led up to the latter. As accomplished and decorated as Lundqvist is, he’s a human being. And you post a .789 save percentage and a 6.94 goals-against average and you’re yanked in two games, it’s bound to do a number on your confidence, even if you’re almost certainly headed to the Hall of Fame one day.
So when Lundqvist pulled on the Broadway Hat – a fedora that Brad Richards bought from a Swedish model for $100 a few years back – to commemorate his status as player of the game, he did so with a little more gusto and a lot more relief than he has in a long time. Lundqvist’s 19th win of the season and the 393rd of his career will go down as a 23-save effort in a 5-2 New York Rangers win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, but in reality, it was so much more than that.
“Sometimes,” Lundqvist said after the game, “a win means a little bit more. You play 82 games and some wins, right away you put it in your bag, but I think today you enjoy it a little extra with what I’ve been through the last week or so. It’s not fun as a goalie to give up a lot of goals.”
Rangers television analyst Steve Valiquette, who played with Lundqvist and has been watching him for a decade, said there was little technically that Lundqvist was doing wrong in his recent slide, with the exception of perhaps not seeing the puck come off the stick as well as he usually does. “I think for the fans to turn there (in the Dallas game), I think that really hurt on a personal level,” Valiquette said. “You should have seen the building. It was a really tough building to be in. He came out of that game after the second period and I don’t think he picked his head up for the entire third. That’s as low as I’ve seen Henrik.”
Lundqvist reiterated a couple of times how difficult the last week has been for him. He seemed to be straddling that line between personal responsibility and acknowledging that like wins, losses are a team effort. He knows his teammates played poorly in front of him, but he’s also cognizant of the fact that he earns an average of $8.5 million a year to be the last line of defense. There are times when you have to bail your teammates out and Lundqvist, who has done it countless times, knows that as well as anyone.
“I’m not going to put everything on me,” Lundqvist said. “There have been a lot of breakdowns, but I know it’s my job to clean it up a little bit.”
The Leafs managed only 25 shots in the game, but there were a good number of high-quality attempts. The turning point of the game came in the middle of the second period when Lundqvist came out and aggressively challenged Mitch Marner on a partial breakaway and forced him to miss. On the next rush up the ice, the Rangers opened up a two-goal lead on a shot by J.T. Miller that Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen overplayed. And early in the third, with the Rangers clinging to a 3-2 lead, Lundqvist stopped Leo Komarov on a terrific opportunity.
“He keeps saying, ‘I’ve got to get back to playing on my toes,’ ” Valiquette said. “And what he means by that is getting out there and getting on top of the puck instead of being back and trying to protect the net behind you.”
Those were the plays Lundqvist wasn’t making in the three games after the Rangers came off their one-week furlough. And once they started piling up, it became more and more difficult to stop that train.
“I think every athlete and hockey player, you go through stretches where it’s just a lot harder to get it done, especially at this level” Lundqvist said. “All it takes is you lose five, six percent and that’s the difference between being OK and being great. Again, when you’re confident, that’s what you do. You clean it up, you make that extra save.”
So now all is presumably well in Ranger-land, a theme park where the roller coasters have gotten quite the workout this season. “We have a lot of confidence in Hank, we knew it was just a matter of time,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, “and now he’s going to follow it up with another big game against Detroit.”