The King and I: Watching Henrik Lundqvist

Henrik Lundqvist - New York Rangers

 Henrik Lundqvist is now the winningest goalie in Rangers history, surpassing Eddie Giacomin and Mike Richter for most shutouts and wins as a Rangers goaltender, respectively.

He is the personification of every success the team has achieved since joining the league in 2005.  For those of us have watched the bulk of their Rangers games post-1994, he is the greatest Ranger, and among the greatest hockey players we have ever seen. Despite his league-mandated inability to wear the “C,” King Henrik remains the face of the franchise, the single most valuable player wearing the Rangers moniker across his chest night in and night out. They will live and die by his play, likely until he retires.

In the formative years of my Rangers fandom, the team utilized a meaningless 7th-round pick on a little known goaltender from Sweden. At the time, the end of Mike Richter’s career was in sight and there wasn’t a clear successor. Who could have thought that the 205th overall pick in the 2000 draft would be the team’s savior between the pipes.

The 2004 World Hockey Championships was where people first started hearing about the then unknown Swedish goaltender who would become the greatest Rangers goalie of all time. I can remember as the blogs and online New York Rangers community raved about the breakout player of the World Hockey Championships being a player in the Rangers system. Even the most wishful thinking couldn’t have anticipated the eventual outcome. In his first full tournament as a starter, he stole the show and made the all-tournament team. The following season, he would leave the Swedish Elite League for the NHL.

Lundqvist took over the starting job, after a net fell on and injured goalie Kevin Weekes, and never looked back.

In the past nine seasons Lundqvist has rewritten record books with 50 shutouts, 300+ wins, seven team MVPs, three all-star games, five Vezina nominations and a Vezina trophy. At only 32 years old, Lundqvist is already statistically the Rangers greatest goalies. Many goaltenders can be successful late into their 30s. However, his impact cannot fully be measured on paper.

The only way to comprehend Lundqvist’s talent, is by watching him play. Though Lundqvist is impressive just about every time you watch him, it has been awe inspiring to see him at the finest hours of his illustrious career. The playoffs are when it matters most, and Lundqvist has risen to the occasion in his 67 playoff games, posting a 2.28 goals against average and .920 save percentage. Still, the impressive numbers don’t do him justice.

To this day, the most impressive effort I have ever watched by a single athlete was with the Rangers down 3-2 against the Capitals in last year’s conference quarterfinals. Lundqvist refused an early exit almost singlehandedly, pitching two straight shutouts in games 6 and 7 to extend the Rangers’ season. Though this was definitely a pinnacle of performance, it was not out of character. The year before, when the Rangers made the conference finals–the longest push of Lundqvist’s tenure–it was in large part to his three shutouts and staggering 1.83 goals against average.

There have been many moving parts in the last decade of Rangers hockey, but the only constants have been playoff runs and Lundqvist. Three coaches and seemingly countless roster swaps have surrounded Lundqvist’s crease but the Rangers’ consistent playoff presence has been a product of Lundqvist’s ability to stand on his head whenever he is called upon.

Despite a team that has consistently underachieved in the scoring department, Lundqvist has led whatever players were on the team at that time to the playoffs all but one year, when they were knocked out on the final day of the regular season in 2009-10. It’s hard to imagine what the last nine years would have been if the 29 other teams would have drafted Lundqvist into their organization.

Early in my reporting career, as an undergraduate journalism student, I was able to enter the Rangers locker room for post game interviews and to no surprise I was not the only one who wanted to speak to “The King.” The first article I ever wrote as a Rangers writer was about how the future of Lundqvist was directly related to the future success of the New York Rangers. This was before he signed a long term deal which will hopefully lead to him retiring a lifelong Ranger. I was there the night that Leetch’s and Graves’ numbers were raised to the rafters and I will be in attendance for the day when number 30 is no longer available to blueshirts players.

For avid sports fans like myself, there are only a handful of athletes that represent what Lundqvist does for me. His intensity radiates through the Garden and can be felt to all watching MSG network every time he stops a barrage of shots or has an outburst after allowing a goal he know he could stop. That is the beautiful thing about his play, it seems like he is always striving to get better despite an already incredible high level of play.

Going forward, it is clear what Lundqvist must do to cement his spot among the great goalies of all time. Lundqvist wants a Stanley Cup, and I have no doubt in my mind that he will play at the required level to make that happen, but I can only hope that his team will match his intensity.

His career performance is already deserving of hockey’s ultimate prize and it was a leap of faith when he decided to sign another long term deal to stay under New York’s polarizing bright lights. For Rangers fans, including myself, it meant that the time is now, to seize a cup in the window of the remaining career of the greatest goaltender many of us will ever watch.

I cannot imagine how heartbreaking it will be if he retires without winning it all, his play is so deserving. Thus is the outlook of a Rangers fan used to unfortunate bounces and falling just short. To the contrary, Lundqvist often provides the Rangers’ faithful and I with the rare experience of confidence in a positive outcome. In Lundqvist we trust.

Before the final weeks of the season and Stanley Cup playoffs get underway let us recognize the incredible accomplishments of a special talent. I am sure I speak on behalf of all Rangers fans when I say that it has been a pleasure to root for Lundqvist the past few years, and I look forward to seeing what he still has in store.