If he doesn’t play up to his standards, the Rangers have almost no shot to consistently win. And if he does play up to his standards, the Rangers have a chance to win and win big.
Hence the massive concern in Rangerstown earlier this season when Lundqvist was in his career-worst funk when, for the first time as an NHL goalie he, sat out four straight games while healthy in December. And then again when he allowed 20 goals (on 113 shots in a four-game span in January).
Part of you thought, ‘well, it’s a blip.’ A bad blip, but that Lundqvist would pull himself out of it. Why not? He always did. His work ethic, his preparation, his competitiveness, and the fact that he has goalie coach Benoit Allaire on his side would result in the real Lundqvist returning for the stretch run and the playoffs.
But perhaps part of you worried, because, well, Lundqvist hadn’t been through something prolonged like this before. And because, well, he certainly hadn’t done it at this age (he turns 35 on Thursday) before.
Well, Lundqvist has turned it around, Sunday’s 5-2 loss to Columbus notwithstanding – a loss that now looks more like an outlier than a return to the darker days.
Going into that game, Lundqvist had posted a 10-2-1 record, along with a 1.91 goals-against average and a .939 save percentage in his last 14 appearances.
More than the numbers, Lundqvist has looked like himself at big moments in games, like the back-to-back breakaways he stopped (by Leo Komarov and, of all people, Auston Matthews) late in overtime in Toronto last Thursday, followed by the shootout-winning save on Nazim Kadri; and the semi-breakaway by Montreal’s Max Pacioretty in a shootout loss two nights earlier. Even against Columbus, he stopped a penalty shot by Brandon Saad and a breakaway by Cam Atkinson to give the Rangers a chance in a game they would eventually let get away.
“There’s no doubt that he’s found his game and that’s reflected on our whole team,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “I mean, it’s reflected on our D, and it’s reflected on our forwards and how they’re playing.”
Vigneault, who said that Lundqvist could still come in around the original target of 60 starts, wasn’t sure exactly when it turned.
“I don’t think there’s one specific point or game, but I do think Hank did work on specific aspects of his technique and he really focused on those areas, and I think that’s really helped his game, his confidence in goal, and his movements,” Vigneault said.
“It’s reflected on what our guys are doing in front of him. We’ve put a big emphasis on protecting in front of our net, getting good box-outs, etc., and there’s no doubt that we’ve been more effective just by goals-against. And the chances (allowed) that we analyze every game have been very good.”
Those in charge of doing the boxing out know the importance of an on-point Lundqvist, and how to make his job easier.
“Obviously I’ve been here a long time with Hank and although he had a little bit of a struggle this year, I think he’s still one of the top goalies in the league,” defenseman and alternate captain Dan Girardi said.
“When he’s on his game and he’s focused and we’re helping him out back there – letting him see the shots and everything – he can carry us a long way. When we weren’t great in some games, he was great for us. I think we need to make sure we’re doing our jobs in front of him, and let him see pucks and let him make the saves.”
“Personally, yeah, I remember sitting down with Benny and talking about a lot of different things, and simplifying things,” Lundqvist said.
“So, for me, it was a turning point. Then as a group, I think over the last couple of weeks we’ve talked a lot about how we play in front of the net and try to just move guys more, and not focus so much on the puck – let me focus on the puck. I think that’s a big thing in the game today, where teams just try to crash the net and throw pucks from all over the place. So having good position as a D-man is going to be crucial, to be able to box out guys who get to rebounds. We did a really good job of that the last few weeks.”
You can tell by listening to him, by watching him as he speaks and analyzes games, how much better he feels.
“My focus here is just working on my game every day here and try to give the team a chance to win here every night,” Lundqvist said. “And the last few weeks, I’ve been feeling pretty good physically, mentally, technically. I think I’m at a level right now where I’m pleased with what I’m doing. It feels good. I will continue to work hard and challenge myself, and I think we’re going to improve as we go down the road.”
The road includes 20 more games (six sets of back-to-backs, in which backup Antti Raanta will get a bunch of starts) to determine playoff seeding, and for playoff preparation, and a time of year Lundqvist cherishes.
“It’s a fun time of the year now, going down the stretch,” he said. “More desperate teams, more intense games. I like that personally, so I look forward to playing some fun hockey here down the road.”
In Toronto last Thursday night, after stopping the two breakaways in overtime, MSGNetworks’ John Giannone asked Lundqvist what he thought as each of those breakaways were coming at him.
The goaltender, who has preached simplifying things, simply said, “Stop it.”