'He has to be backbone' for Rangers
ATLANTA -- You can often tell the measure of a pro athlete by the way he deals with the media, not after a big win or a great performance, but after a bitter defeat or a lousy outing.
Not that it's always about the media (just most of the time), but those moments provide insight in terms of an athlete's character. And to our knowledge, it is a measuring stick against which New York Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist has never failed to earn the highest marks.
It was so in Vancouver after the defending gold medalists from Sweden were bounced in the Olympic quarterfinals by Slovakia in a game that saw Lundqvist stop just 10 of 14 shots. It was so last April after the Rangers blew a 3-1 series lead against Washington in the first round. And it was so in an almost empty Philips Arena last week, a couple of days after Lundqvist was yanked from yet another Rangers loss, with the end of the regular season less than a month away.
The 28-year-old had already chatted with the New York media, but agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to talk to a latecomer as he headed toward the team bus after the morning skate.
"I think, as a goalie, you can't think that you have to win," Lundqvist told ESPN.com. "You have to think, 'Just play as good as you can and give your team a chance to win,' because I can't really affect how we play as a team or if we score or not. If I get too involved emotionally with how we do as a team, I'll lose focus on my end, my job."
Of all the teams still fighting for a playoff spot or set for the playoffs, perhaps no team relies more emphatically on its netminder for success than the New York Rangers.
The Rangers rank 23rd in goals per game. Only Boston, which ranks 30th, has more trouble scoring in the Eastern Conference and has a legitimate shot at a playoff spot. Yes, we know, good goaltending is key to almost all success in the NHL; but the Rangers, who reinvent their lineup and identity on an almost annual basis, rely on Lundqvist because he is the one constant.
That the Rangers have managed to qualify for the playoffs four straight seasons since the lockout is a testament not only to Lundqvist's significant skill set but also to his consistency and ability to weather storms, internally and externally.
Whether the Rangers are able to make it five trips to the dance will again depend on those qualities, which have at times been absent from the man some like to call "The King."
"He's been fine," said Rangers coach John Tortorella, who has been known to toss his goaltenders right under the bus during his career as an NHL bench boss. "The other night, there were a lot of deflections, a lot of just weird goals, so he's been fine. Again, for us, Boston wins last night, Montreal wins last night, it is staring us right in the face here, so he's going to have to be the best he can be at this time. He's going to have to be the backbone, as he always is. I'm sure he's ready to accept that challenge."
Tortorella -- who won a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004 and was recently part of the coaching staff of the silver medal-winning American team in Vancouver -- talked of staring destiny in the face as it relates to the Rangers getting into the playoffs. The Rangers were five points out of eighth place heading into Thursday's game against Atlanta. A loss would have meant five straight losses for the Blueshirts, a crippling blow to their playoff chances. But as he has so many times since joining the Rangers in the 2005-06 season, Lundqvist held the fort, turning aside 29 of 31 as the Rangers kept their playoff hopes alive.
He followed that up by blocking 17 of 18 as the Rangers knocked off Atlantic Division foe Philadelphia on Sunday to close within one point of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Lundqvist insists he doesn't view himself as the difference between winning and losing.
"I try to just go in with the mindset of, 'Play as good as possible and give us a chance to win and see what happens,'" he said.
Since Jan. 27, Lundqvist has allowed five or more goals four times. Those are the kinds of outings that have made this season a peculiar one for the perennial Vezina Trophy nominee.
Goaltending stats don't reflect solely the play of a goaltender, but more the play of a team's defense, its commitment to backchecking and the like. And it's not as though Lundqvist has somehow lost his edge. He did turn in a 22-game stretch during which he didn't allow more than three goals in any game. He also has a 2.45 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage through 60 games this season. Still, he acknowledged that, at the end of the day, he'll wish he had more wins and played better.
"Overall, it's been an OK year," Lundqvist said. "You always want to win more, you always want to play a little bit better, but overall I think it's been pretty good. But at the end of the year, you always look at how many games you actually won, and obviously I'd like it to be a little bit more."
The Rangers will host red-hot Montreal on Tuesday and St. Louis on Thursday before traveling to Boston on Sunday for what promises to be another do-or-die outing. Still, in many ways, the Rangers hold the key to their destiny. Or rather, it would appear, Lundqvist holds the key. Again.
"The last couple of years, we've been in position where we were a little disappointed," Lundqvist said. "We wanted to be higher up in the standings, and we still pulled it off in the end. Knowing that we've done it in the past helps. We know as long as we take care of business here, we can get back in the race. It looks pretty tough right now and we're still trying to find some consistency here, but you never know."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.