Red-Hot Henrik Lundqvist Making the Rangers a Stanley Cup Threat

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Red-Hot Henrik Lundqvist Making the Rangers a Stanley Cup Threat
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It was about four years ago at one of those preseason media events organized by the NHL that brings the game’s biggest stars to a midtown Manhattan hotel to be mass interviewed by reporters both local and national. 

The New York Rangers were coming off a season in which they missed the postseason by virtue of a shootout loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in their 82nd game of the regular season.

Lundqvist was 28 at that media event known affectionately as the car wash, yet he brought up the fact that missing the playoffs the previous year made him realize that he wasn’t getting any younger and his time as an elite goaltender who could win a Stanley Cup was growing shorter.

Time has a funny way of motivating people.

Lundqvist put forth four of his best seasons in the NHL since that time and was never more dominant than he was in Games 5, 6 and 7 in the conference semifinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

He turned aside 35 shots in a virtuoso Game 7 performance as the Rangers won 2-1 to win a best-of-seven series after falling behind 3-1 for the first time in franchise history.

Lundqvist stopped 102 of 105 shots in the Rangers’ final three games against the Penguins.

Not bad for a 32-year-old.

Maybe that warning light flipped on again for Lundqvist after he allowed four goals on 27 shots in a Game 4 loss. Whatever the case may be, he is on top of his game and the biggest reason why the Rangers have a chance at winning their first Stanley Cup since 1994.

In the final five minutes of Game 7, Lundqvist made a series of stops in a pressure situation like he’s never done before. He denied Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang in succession, all while lacking a goal stick and being pressured by a desperate Penguins team that was searching for the tying goal. 

"That's three or four of the biggest saves I've seen [Lundqvist] make since I've played with him," Marc Staal told reporters after the game. "Five minutes left to go, 2-1 hockey game and he comes up with that ... that's massive. Stepped up and made a bunch of huge saves. Battle hard for us. That got us the win."

"He's OK," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said jokingly.

Another thing that’s changed since Lundqvist’s recognition four years ago that time is never on an athlete’s side is his mastery in Game 7s.

With Tuesday’s win, he improved to 5-0 with a .973 save percentage in Game 7s since 2012. No one in the history of the NHL has had a run of success like this in Game 7s. 

For years, Lundqvist had the reputation of a great goaltender who couldn’t win the big game or steal games when his team needed it. He had a record of 3-8 in second-round series during his first six seasons, leaving many to wonder if his “King” nickname was more ironic than anything else.

Lundqvist earned that moniker over the final three games of the Penguins series.

With all due respect to Carey Price, whose season could end Wednesday night in Boston, Lundqvist is the best goalie remaining in the postseason who is at the top of his game right now.

Should the Rangers run into the Bruins, Canadiens, Blackhawks, Kings or Ducks over the next month, Lundqvist will offer a distinct advantage.

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Should the Rangers face Tuukka Rask or Price in the Eastern Conference Final, the advantage will be slim, but it will be an advantage nonetheless.

Should the Rangers reach the Stanley Cup Final and match up against Corey Crawford or John Gibson, there’s no reason to think Lundqvist can’t do to those teams what he nearly single-handedly did to the Penguins.

Lundqvist reached the Eastern Conference Final in 2012, but there’s something different about this current trip. He was very good two years ago, but wasn’t required to steal games with the top-seeded Rangers facing the seventh-seeded Washington Capitals and eighth-seeded Ottawa Senators.

But this year, ESPN's Katie Strang noted, "The former Vezina Trophy winner gave the Blueshirts the irrefutable edge between the pipes, and he was the X factor in the winner-takes-all Game 7."

He needed to be the best player on the ice against a quality, higher-seeded Penguins team for three consecutive games, and he rose to the occasion.

There’s no reason to believe that Lundqvist can’t do it again, no matter the opponent.

 

Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo.

All statistics via NHL.com.

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