Rangers’ Gilbert, Lundqvist Destined to Be Overlooked

New York Rangers world was hit with two painful stories in a three-day span last week, first the retirement of future Hall of Fame goaltender Henrik Lundqvist on Friday and then the death of franchise icon Rod Gilbert at age 80 on Sunday. Both men represented the best the team has had to offer, augmenting their brilliant playing careers with class and dignity that will render their legacies in Blueshirts timeless.

Both men had/have much to celebrate in their lives: Gilbert’s distinguished 18-year career, spent entirely with the Rangers, resulted in 1,021 points and election to the Hall of Fame in 1982, and his No. 7 was the first number to be retired by the team. Gilbert rejoined the organization in 1989 as director of special projects and community relations representative, as well as president of its alumni association. For the past four years, the former right wing had been very active in the team’s Garden of Dreams Foundation, an outreach program.

Rod Gilbert
Rangers Hall of Famer Rod Gilbert (c) plays at Madison Square Garden (Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images)

As for Lundqvist, his 459 victories are sixth-most all-time, and he added 61 more in the postseason. The 2011-12 Vezina Trophy winner is the only goalie in NHL history to record 30 wins in each of his first seven seasons and the only one to win at least 20 in his first 11 seasons. Lundqvist also won six consecutive Game 7s and recorded 64 regular-season shutouts and 10 more in the playoffs.

Like Gilbert, Lundqvist projected an air of panache and style; a pair of men with smoothness and grace that seemed at odds with the rough, often-violent game in which they put together a pair of all-time careers and earned riches and adulation. Yet part of their Rangers persona will always be tinged with another characteristic: Sadness.

Powerful Rangers of Gilbert’s, Lundqvist’s Eras Didn’t Have Enough For Cup

Because neither player, for all their accomplishments, ever hoisted the Stanley Cup. In that way, both men also came to perfectly personify a franchise accustomed to near-misses.

“The beauty of it is every year we were sniffing at it and we were coming closer. It was always our hope,” Gilbert, the man they called “Mr. Ranger,” said last year. (Goalie) Eddie Giacomin was a Hall of Famer. We had a solid defense. We had three lines. We had a complete team. I just don’t really know at the end what happened. Every playoffs, somebody put the sticks in the wheels and tripped us up.

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“But I don’t have an empty feeling about (not winning the Cup). I’m really proud of the way that team was formed and the togetherness of our team. When it comes to the playoffs, you know how hard it is to win this thing. I don’t think that much about it because I’m grateful what we accomplished in those years.”

Still …

“But it would have been nice to win one or two,” Gilbert admitted. “I see the boys from (1994), how popular they are.” (From ‘Rod Gilbert, Mr. Ranger, Dead at 80’, New York Post, 8/22/21)

Gilbert passed away Sunday at age 80

Gilbert’s Rangers teams included the aforementioned Giacomin and Jean Ratelle and Brad Park, rounding out a quartet of Hall of Famers, along with Vic Hadfield, a 50-goal scorer in 1971-72. The Blueshirts reached the Stanley Cup Final that season, only to fall in six games to the Boston Bruins. From 1970-73, Gilbert and his powerful team put together three straight 100-point seasons, but could never break through for a championship – a lament that plenty of Rangers greats understand.

If Gilbert’s inability to reach the mountaintop was a source of at least some regret for him, Lundqvist falling short is downright painful. There seem to be few in franchise history, and perhaps, in NHL history, more deserving of a Cup – because few players did more to take good teams and come so close to making them great.

Rangers Never Found an Elite Scorer To Team With Lundqvist

Lundqvist was the Rangers’ unquestioned best player for much of his career, and it wasn’t a particularly close competition. The Blueshirts, benefiting from Lundqvist’s prime, simply couldn’t surround him with enough talent to get over the hump. Some of it was missed draft opportunities, some of it was a lack of access to the future superstars who are taken at the top of the draft, but the club was never able to come up with enough star players who could deliver in the playoffs to pair with Lundqvist.

As with Gilbert’s teams, there were three 100-plus point seasons in which the Rangers would come close: 2011-12 and 2014-15, when they fell in the Eastern Conference Final, and 2013-14, when their run to the Stanley Cup Final ended in a five-game loss to the Los Angeles Kings. Those Rangers rode depth, speed and grittiness toward a championship before falling short.

Henrik Lundqvist New York Rangers
Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Sadly, one of the enduring images of Lundqvist’s career will always be that of him laying prone on the ice after Alec Martinez’s double-overtime, Cup-clinching goal in Game 5 of that Cup Final, a series in which the Rangers had numerous golden opportunities to tilt it in their favor.

The man they called “The King” would never get that close again. Relegated to a secondary role during the 2019-20 season as goalie of the future Igor Shesterkin began his rise, Lundqvist’s contract was bought out by the team after that season. His hopes of a Ray Bourque-in-Colorado moment after signing with the Washington Capitals for 2020-21 were dashed before the season, when he required open-heart surgery after an enlarged aorta and leaky valve were discovered.

His heart wouldn’t cooperate this summer as he worked to possibly come back for next season, so Lundqvist made the only decision he could after 15 years of chasing a championship. The stat that perhaps best illustrates the excruciating nature of Lundqvist’s near-misses: From 2012-15, the Rangers went 15-4 in playoff elimination games. That seems all but impossible to do without lifting a Cup.

“When I look back, there’s so much that goes into winning,” he said at his retirement announcement. “Of course it is disappointing not to win the Cup, but we had our chances and we had our window. I am grateful for my teammates and to have played for those teams.

“There was nothing like the feeling of those big wins at (Madison Square) Garden, those Game 7s with everything on the line, the noise, and the way the building would explode after a victory. There was nothing like that feeling.” (From ‘Henrik Lundqvist Announces Retirement After Legendary Career’, New York Post, 8/20/21)

Lundqvist Set to Join Gilbert in the MSG Rafters

Lundqvist’s No. 30 will join Gilbert’s No. 7 in the rafters at MSG next season – two players who came close but were left without the crowning achievement to a pair of exceptional careers. Who’s to say how both really felt about it, though Gilbert seemed to allow for a peek into his thinking in last year’s interview, expressing at least some remorse over not winning it all.

It’s not possible to know exactly how much it burned him, but in discussing it, he allowed that what he as a player, and what his teammates accomplished, gets overlooked.

Gilbert’s Rangers featured one of the best forward units in NHL history, the so-called GAG (goal-a-game) Line consisting of him, Ratelle and Hadfield. The superb Park played in the shadow of the NHL’s greatest defenseman, Bobby Orr, finishing second to Orr in the Norris Trophy voting four times and seven times overall in his career. Giacomin led the league in wins three straight seasons from 1966-69 and captured the Vezina in 1970-71. A Stanley Cup would have drawn more attention to that collective brilliance though the years.

Like the best editions of Gilbert’s clubs and the 1978-79 Rangers who shocked a dynasty-in-waiting by beating the New York Islanders in the East semifinals before being outclassed by the Montreal Canadiens in the Final, the three top iterations of Lundqvist’s Blueshirts teams just didn’t have enough, couldn’t finish the job the way the 1994 champions could.

A portion of the fan base oddly blames Lundqvist for those Rangers not capturing a Cup. As if the Blueshirts could have simply replaced one of the best goalies of all-time, who posted a 2.30 GAA and .921 save percentage in 130 playoff games, and somehow been more competitive for a championship. Lundqvist also regularly faced a barrage of shots, both in the regular season and playoffs, as the Rangers were hardly a lockdown defensive team during his era on Broadway.

New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist
Lundqvist makes a saves against the New Jersey Devils (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Perhaps history weighs too heavily on this franchise. Whatever the case, Gilbert and Lundqvist lifted the Rangers to new heights – and also epitomized the franchise’s ethos of mostly missing out on Stanley Cups. Rangers fans will always love Gilbert and Lundqvist – while probably simultaneously wishing that they don’t see too many more of those kinds of careers in Blueshirts.

Just the missing out on championships part, of course.