One of the things that professional athletes, particularly hockey players, are often chastised for is the vague, empty nature with which they answer questions from the press. It’s not uncommon for players to refrain from being honest in an effort to spare the feelings of their teammates or coaches. Sometimes, however, an athlete’s facial expression can reveal emotions and feelings that they may not feel comfortable enough to put into words.
These are the type of things that come to mind during many post-game interviews with New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. The ever-increasing number of frowns strewn across the face of the star Swede following Ranger losses seems to correspond directly to the decreasing support that the Rangers have been providing for the backbone of their franchise.
Lundqvist finished the 2009-10 season by appearing in a career-high 73 games, while winning 35 contests (his fifth-consecutive 30-win season) with a goals against average of 2.38, and a save percentage of .921. For the first time in his NHL career, however, his club failed to qualify for the playoffs, despite the monumental efforts put forward by the former Olympic Gold Medalist on almost every night.
Like his performance on the final night of the regular season, for example, when he stopped 46 of 47 shots through three periods and overtime, before succumbing to the Philadelphia Flyers in a shootout that sent the Broad Street Bullies upward and onward into the playoffs, and the Broadway Blueshirts packing for the golf course. It was one of the best games of his career, and in typical 2009-10 Rangers fashion, he got absolutely zero support from his team. The best part? They know it as well as he does.
“He’s been our backbone all season,” forward Brandon Dubinsky said following the loss. “It hurts that we didn’t get the job done for him. He deserved that."
Team captain Chris Drury also mentioned Lundqvist by name, acknowledging the credit that the goaltender deserved for the club being in a position to compete for a playoff spot at all. “As bad as we all feel, I think we all really feel for Hank. We all understand what he meant to us in this game and all season.”
What did Henrik Lundqvist mean to the Rangers this season? Frankly, almost everything. Replace the man that the Garden Faithful affectionately refer to as “The King” with an average, run of the mill, NHL starting netminder, and the Rangers are one of the league’s worst teams.
Whether it was the squad’s inability to play an impenetrable team defense, or their regular failure to score enough goals to win, it was up to Lundqvist to overexert himself so often that it should come as no surprise to anyone that he was “dead tired” by the time that fateful, and ultimately, season-ending shootout came about.
Of all the league’s goaltenders, only the New Jersey Devils’ Martin Brodeur played in more games this season than Lundqvist.
The Rangers relied so heavily on Lundqvist, and his success became so synonymous with the team’s success, that even when he had the rare “bad” game, his frustration boiled over onto himself (thanks, in part, to the inane questioning of MSG Network’s John Giannone).
It was almost absurd that the man who carried the team on his back all season long, just as he did last season, had to put so much pressure on himself, but then again, he has admitted in interviews that he’s well aware of how directly his play is tied to the team’s chances of winning. He simply can’t afford to have an off game, because if he does, it’s highly unlikely the Rangers will win that game.
That is quite a shame, because most nights, Lundqvist was as fantastic as he has been since his earliest days as a Ranger. One has to hope the Rangers realize that this trend cannot continue. Henrik Lundqvist cannot carry a team to the Stanley Cup on his own. There has to be a team in front of him capable of providing him with the kind of support, both defensive and offense, necessary to succeed in this league. Otherwise, they’re going to waste the prime years of one of the greatest homegrown talents this franchise has ever had amongst its ranks.
Henrik Lundqvist Grade: A