I've never written a hockey column before. I just want to put that disclaimer down.
In fact, I've only been following the Rangers for about two seasons. I hadn't seen a minute of hockey since the 2000 Cup. (Or 2001? Which one did Ray Bourque win with Colorado? Somebody comment on this, please.)
However, I accidentally watched the third period and overtime of the Chris Drury Game at a friend's apartment while pre-gaming for a night out and found myself surprisingly heartbroken, and hungry for more. The day the Rangers signed Drury—July 1, 2007—I resolved to start watching a little closer.
Nights like last night make me so, so grateful that I did.
Yesterday afternoon, as I was out having a cigarette during the interminable Yankees-A's finale, ruminating on what the Rangers would have to do to win this first-round series and make it to Boston, two things came to mind.
First, the Rangers absolutely had to take Game Four at home. No low-seeded team could survive the epic crash-and-burn of winning the first two games of a series on the road, taking all of that momentum back to their house, and getting beat twice at home to even the series. It would be too draining. Especially for a club that lives and dies with the energy of their forecheck and the force of their will, losing last night's game would have spelled the end of the season, just like Buffalo's miracle comeback killed the 2007 team.
Second, as hungry as Washington was going to be, as much blood as was in the water after Monday's 4-0 thrashing, a game like this was going to be one of Those Defining Moments for a goaltender who's already thought of as one of the best in the league.
There are nights in postseason sports that can belong only to goaltenders and starting pitchers. A baseball team with its back to the wall turns to their best pitcher and says, quite simply, "Save us." A hockey team that's having trouble scoring and is desperately trying to stay in a series turns to its best goalie, and says "Save us." The reward for success? Entry into that pantheon—not just elite guys, but elite postseason guys. The price of failure? Your season is over.
My point, inside my head, was this: Henrik Lundqvist was going to need to play the game of his life.
To a guy who's relatively new to watching the sport, the fluidity of hockey makes it more difficult to follow the play-by-play than any of the other three major American sports. Take last night's first Rangers' goal, for example: a faceoff won by Brandon Dubinsky to Paul Mara, shot and deflected off of two bodies and past Varlamov.
(The call from the booth, by the way? "Here's the faceoff...AND THEY SCORE!" Thanks, guys.)
All of this is to say, there are only a few moments in a game where you'll be able to know in advance that something huge is about to happen. So, I don't really know what to say about most of the thirty-eight saves Lundqvist made last night. I don't know how they got brought on.
The one that's going to hold in everyone's memory is late in the second period, Ovechkin dropping the puck back for Alexander Semin for a shot from...I don't know, twenty feet away?...and even as the crowd gets into "uh-oh" mode Lundqvist is already snaring it in his glove at full extension while doing a split.
Big picture: through four games, Washington has outshot the Rangers 149-99. They've scored one more goal, thanks entirely to their 4-0 victory in Game Three. I predict this series to be over on Friday night, another one-goal game, with Lundqvist doing the honors yet again. This is his series.
I'm not the only one feeling like this one was special; this morning, ESPN's Pierre LeBrun compared this series to the 1992-93 playoff between the Quebec Nordiques (the Sundin-Sakic-Nolan Nordiques) and the Montreal Canadiens, who had a guy named Patrick Roy. Yes, LeBrun just compared Lundqvist to the second-winningest goalie in history, a winner of multiple Cups. And yes, he wrote it as if history is repeating itself.
Henrik Lundqvist has an Olympic gold medal. He's been the best player on this Rangers team all season, and all last season. He'll get his Vezina votes, year in and year out, and he'll win one eventually. And even after all that, after last night's performance, calling him simply "one of the best in the league" may not suffice anymore. We've just seen his ceiling get raised.
That was what last night was about. That's the reward for winning that defining game - you take the first steps to becoming a legend.
And you don't have to know too much about hockey to know one when you see one.