NEW YORK—Henrik Lundqvist called it the worst start in his professional career.
No, he wasn’t talking about Game 5 against the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday—he was talking about the beginning of the 2013-14 season.
Through eight regular-season games, Lundqvist was floundering under new coach Alain Vigneault, hired to replace the stern, defensive-minded John Tortorella. The five-time Vezina Trophy finalist looked more like an AHL goaltender in those eight starts, going 2-5-0 with a 3.28 goals-against average and .895 save percentage.
“It was a test,” Lundqvist said, “but it feels even better when you turn it around."
Lundqvist overcame his putrid October and bounced back to have his usual stellar season, amassing 33 wins and a .920 save percentage in the process.
Maybe Lundqvist needs his back to wall. Maybe he needs adversity to find a higher level.
It all culminated in the biggest win of his career Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
The resiliency that has been on display this season served him well at the most critical time, as Lundqvist posted an 18-save shutout in the New York Rangers’ 1-0 victory against the Canadiens in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final to propel his team to its first Stanley Cup Final since 1994.
It took nine seasons and featured seven failures in the playoffs, but Lundqvist will finally play for the Stanley Cup.
That thing that Lundqvist has never done before? He just did it.— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) May 30, 2014
Lundqvist responded with an outstanding performance two days after the Canadiens ran him from the Bell Centre ice in the second period by scoring four goals on 19 shots.
As he did at the start of the season and during these playoffs, Lundqvist rose to the occasion.
“We knew he was going to bounce back,” Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “He was the first one to admit it, that he wasn’t himself the last game, but we didn’t help him in any cause, either. We knew what he means to this team, the backbone, always stepping up in big moments.
“It’s no coincidence here that he pitches a shutout.”
Lundqvist has allowed four goals in a game on three occasions during this postseason—Game 6 against the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round, Game 4 against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round and the aforementioned egg-laying in Game 5 against the Canadiens.
His record in three starts after those games: 3-0 with two goals allowed on 77 shots, a .974 save percentage.
In Game 6 against the Canadiens, Lundqvist found himself in a goaltending duel with Dustin Tokarski, an actual AHL goaltender before Carey Price was lost to a knee injury during Game 1 of this series. Tokarski was every bit as wonderful as Lundqvist in this game, perhaps more so based on the workload, save for one goal from Dominic Moore late in the second period that decided the game.
The rookie made 31 saves and gave the Canadiens every chance in the world to tie the score in the third period. Weirdly enough, it was Tokarski’s play that served as an added motivator to an already-motivated Lundqvist.
“But tonight,” Lundqvist said, “I don’t think I’ve ever been more determined to win a hockey game.”
Most career playoff shutouts among active goalies: 1. Martin Brodeur 24 2. Henrik Lundqvist 9 3. The rest #NYR— Pete Jensen (@NHLJensen) May 30, 2014
An 18-save shutout is never going to exact gasps and praise the way a 30- or 40-save shutout would. But there’s something to be said about the focus required in a game of this magnitude to remain mentally sharp when the other team isn’t generating much traffic. This wasn’t like Game 7 against the Penguins, when it seemed like Mario Lemieux himself came down from the owner’s box to throw a few pucks on net in the final minutes.
That’s what makes saves like the one Lundqvist had on Thomas Vanek in the second period that much more special.
It was a busted play in the neutral zone that became a busted play around the net. Vanek attempted to slide the puck over to teammate Michael Bournival, but a diving defensive effort from Dan Girardi deflected the puck out of harm’s way.
Well, out of harm’s way and into harm’s way.
Lundqvist moved to his left in anticipation of needing to stop Bournival only to have his teammate tip the puck to his right. Lundqvist steadied himself, released his stick and waved his blocker toward the puck as if he were a windmill to make the incredible save.
It was just the second shot Lundqvist had faced in about eight minutes.
Three minutes later, Moore scored the only goal the Rangers would require on this night.
“It was huge,” Moore said. “Those are the kinds of moments that when you look back on these series…obviously, there was a few moments in the Game 7 in Pittsburgh, third period, there’s been some vintage Hank moments you can look back on, and that blocker save is another one from this series.”
“It’s a huge momentum shift in that game,” defenseman Marc Staal said. “He makes that save and we go down and score a few minutes later. I have to watch it again. It was incredible.”
The Rangers will need magnificent performances like this one in the Stanley Cup Final, whether it’s against the Chicago Blackhawks or Los Angeles Kings. The Eastern champs will be heavy underdogs no matter who emerges from the West, but the only thing that can make that series competitive is Lundqvist being at the top of his game.
If Lundqvist wants a shutout in a series that will start Wednesday in either Los Angeles or Chicago, 18 saves probably won’t get it done.
Vigneault was asked what he would have thought if someone had told him in October that the Rangers would reach the Stanley Cup Final: “I probably would have said, ‘What are you smoking?’”
He probably doesn’t think the Rangers’ odds are that long in the Cup Final, and it’s probably because he has Lundqvist in his net.
“I’m biased,” Derek Stepan said, “but he’s the best goaltender in the world.”
All statistics via NHL.com.