Commentary

There's no rest for Henrik Lundqvist

Rangers' ironman goalie out to avenge disappointments of 2010 and '09

Updated: April 12, 2011, 8:20 PM ET
By Mike Mazzeo | Special to ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers have several question marks heading into the postseason.

All-star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist isn't one of them.

While sniper Marian Gaborik hasn't scored in his past nine games and an anemic power play is just one for its past 27 opportunities, Lundqvist went 11-4-1 with a 2.10 goals-against average, .930 save percentage and three shutouts in his team's final 16 games, leading the Rangers into the playoffs after last season's debacle.

The eighth-seeded Blueshirts, who needed a 6-2 Tampa Bay Lightning victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night just to squeeze into the postseason, will take on the top-seeded Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Game 1 is Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. ET, when the seven-game series kicks off at Verizon Center in Washington.

"Since I've been here, I think this is the highest level he's played at," Rangers coach John Tortorella said recently. "I just think he has decided that he wants to put the team on his shoulders, and he just has that fight in him."

Lundqvist, a six-year NHL veteran, received regular rest during the early portion of the season, but had to start the final 26 games after backup Martin Biron suffered a season-ending broken collarbone on Feb. 28.

The 29-year-old butterfly netminder wound up leading the league in shutouts (11), tied for fifth in games played (68), sixth in wins (36) and tied for sixth in both goals-against average (2.28) and save percentage (a career-high .923). Earlier in the season, he secured his 200th career victory and also extended his own NHL record by posting 30-plus wins for the sixth consecutive season to open his career.

[+] EnlargeHendrik Lundqvist
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireLundqvist stonewalled doubters, backstopping the Rangers into the playoffs.

"He's our best player," veteran center Vinny Prospal said bluntly. "He keeps us in games, and he gives us a chance to win every night."

Literally. Every night.

"I think Henrik has shown that he's grown there as far as mental toughness," Tortorella said. "At this point in the season, you can't be tired. To me, as a group, we talk players into being tired. I think you can will yourself to get through, and I think you can will yourself to be tired."

Lundqvist, who last sat a full 60 minutes on Feb. 7 (rookie backup Chad Johnson did spell him for the third period on Mar. 31), continues to downplay his streak of consecutive games played. He said he likes to relax on his off days and conserve as much energy as he can.

"I don't try to schedule anything," said Lundqvist, who loves to play the acoustic guitar, as well as watch "Dexter" and "House" on television. "I just try to do other things and not try to concentrate on hockey."

The Rangers failed to qualify for the playoffs in 2009-10, falling to the rival Philadelphia Flyers in a shootout on the final day of the regular season.

Lundqvist never forgot that, and it motivated him going into 2010-11. The Rangers wound up facing the Flyers in a critical game on April 3, but this time it was Lundqvist and his teammates who came out on top in a 3-2 shootout victory.

"I had a small flashback," Lundqvist told The Associated Press after that game. "I really learned from last year to stay in the moment, not think about the consequences. Last year, I thought if I didn't make the save, we were out. Now, it's just make the save and deal with the consequences later."

Going into his team's 2011 Stanley Cup playoff series with the Capitals, Lundqvist will have to keep himself from remembering Game 7 of the 2008-09 quarters. With just 4:59 left in the third period, Sergei Fedorov's wrist shot from the right circle beat Lundqvist glove side, and Washington rallied from a three-games-to-one deficit, beating the Blueshirts 2-1 in the decisive contest.

So this time, Lundqvist is going to be out to get revenge.

"It meant a lot personally to make the playoffs," Lundqvist said after Monday's practice. "I take a lot of pride in that and it's a team game, but I took it very personal last year when we didn't make it that I should be back to help the team make it. It was a big goal we had going into this year to bounce back and and be back in the playoffs. I think everybody should be proud and feel good about themselves and what we accomplished."

The Rangers know they're underdogs. They know that they won't have their heart and soul, right winger Ryan Callahan, who's out with a broken leg sustained blocking a Zdeno Chara slap shot in another critical game. They know that their top defensive pairing, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, is going to have its hands full trying to stop the Alexander Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-Mike Knuble line.

However, the Rangers, who went 3-1 against the Capitals in 2010-11 (including 7-0 and 6-0 thrashings; Lundqvist notched both of the shutouts), do have one advantage -- and that's between the pipes. While Washington will start unproven rookie Michal Neuvirth (zero postseason games), New York will counter with the seasoned Lundqvist (14-16, 2.66 GAA, .907 save percentage in 30 career playoff games).

And as history shows, a hot goaltender can often be the equalizer in the NHL playoffs. -- The 2009-10 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks and little-known rookie netminder Antti Niemi are the most recent examples of that.

"All playoff teams, the goaltender is the key guy and we have a real good one there and the thing I like about Hank is he's tasting it," Tortorella said after Monday's practice. "He wants to get back in it and he's excited. He's a key man. Goaltending is a key position and he'll be ready to play, I know that."

Mike Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

  • How 'Bout Them Apples!
    The 'Bockers bum-rushed the Nets to win the season series (3-1) in a laugher.
  • Time Out
    Carmelo Anthony is done for the season with a small tear in his labrum.
  • Manhattan Transfer
    Lamar Odom could be coming home to NYC. Good move for the Knicks?
  • So Long, Cervy
    We won't see Francisco Cervelli back with the Yanks until at least June.
  • Whoa, Jenrry!
    With the Mets short on outfielders, Jenrry Mejia has taken over on the hill.

MORE NHL HEADLINES