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An editorial project about the New York Rangers and the world of hockey.

A Goaltender’s Madness

 

Written by Pac Pobric  •  Illustrated by Keenan Wells

Gilles Gratton was a madman. You could just tell by looking at him. But if you happened to somehow miss him—if you managed not to catch sight of the tiger-headed man between the red pipes at the end of the ice—he’d command your attention otherwise. He’d hiss. He’s growl. He’d make strange comments about his past life as a 17th-century Spanish landowner. After games, he’d skate naked around the rink. He only played one season with the New York Rangers, in 1976–77, and here’s what he remembered: “I smoked pot every day when I was there.”

It’s a hockey truism: goalies are of another breed. Patrick Roy used to talk to goal posts “because they are my friends.” Gump Worsley, who played four years in New York, thought it cowardly to wear a helmet and played 21 years without one. He’d say, “my face is my mask.”

By those standards, Henrik Lundqvist, the Swedish master goaltender who’s been the core of the New York Rangers since 2005, is a slice of wonder bread. His pre-game rituals—a nap, a few private moments with his favorite music—are tame. He doesn’t hiss. He has few superstitions. But no matter—it’s his play that counts. And for 13 years, he’s been New York’s most reliable player: the backbone of a team that made it to the playoffs for 11 of those seasons; a 2012 Vezina trophy winner as the National Hockey League’s best goaltender; and the quickest goalie ever to make it to 400 wins. “He wants to be the best, so he’s the best,” a former Rangers backup goalie said of Lundqvist. “If all you have is one day, one game, one shot, he can do it.”

Lundqvist has put up solid numbers this year, especially behind a lukewarm team. His save percentage is a healthy .921; his goals-against average is 2.63. Although he only has nine wins in 21 games, he reached an important milestone this season on November 17 when he recorded his 438th career win in a game against the Florida Panthers, surpassing Montreal Canadiens legend Jacques Plante to become the seventh-winningest goaltender in NHL history. He’s also the only NHL goalie ever to record 20 wins in 13 consecutive seasons. Asked about Lundqvist’s play this season, head coach New York David Quinn said: “He’s been everything you could ask for from your best player.

But all the Rangers’ best player can do is keep his team in the game. He needs support up front to finish the job. This season, that support has been thin. Last Sunday’s loss to Winnipeg was a case in point. Throughout the game, Lundqvist was outstanding, stopping 39 shots thrown at him by one of the NHL’s best offensive teams. Forty minutes into the game, he had yet to allow a goal, bending every which direction like a focused band of taffy to frustrate Winnipeg and allow himself a chance for a shutout.

But gaps opened up. Less than two minutes into the third period, Rangers defenseman Brendan Smith committed a foolish interference penalty when he threw Brandon Tanev into the glass behind Lundqvist. Down a man, the Rangers weren’t able to defend against a remarkable and productive offense stacked with players like Patrik Laine and Blake Wheeler. On the power play, Jets sniper Mark Scheifele quickly found a hole and fired a shot to spark a rally that led Winnipeg to a 4–3 victory over New York.

In the locker room after the game, a frustrated Lundqvist was asked how he felt about his tremendous effort and his .929 save percentage. “It’s not enough for a win,” he said, “so it doesn’t feel good at all.”

Here’s another truism: Lundqvist is getting older. In March, he will turn 37, but he’s already the fourth-oldest active goaltender in the NHL. (Roberto Luongo is the oldest at 39.) Before long, the wear and tear of athletic life will begin to catch up with him and his window of opportunity to win a Stanley Cup will begin to close. Perhaps he will surprise us. Dominik Hašek, perhaps the greatest goalie in NHL history, won his second Stanley Cup as a member of the Detroit Red Wings in 2008. He was 43.

But the win came with an asterisk. Hašek struggled through the Western Conference Finals and didn’t play in the Stanley Cup Finals. What’s more, the squad in front of any Detroit goaltender that year—which included, among others, forward Pavel Datsyuk and defensemen Nicklas Lidström and Chris Chelios—was practically an All Star team.

Lundqvist has few such advantages this year. Most of the major puzzle pieces who made up New York’s great few seasons of the past 13 years—which included a run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2014, where they lost in five games to Los Angeles—are long gone. This is a rebuild year, a time of quiet expectations and reserved patience, which is altogether a far cry from the heady days when Marián Gáborík and Rick Nash anchored lines with Brad Richards, Carl Hagelin, and captain Ryan Callahan. For years, team management pushed and pushed, acquiring players here and there that could have completed the team. And yet…

Where does this leave our prized goaltender and franchise player? There is speculation that he may be foolishly wasting his time in New York, whereas he could easily request a trade to a team with Stanley Cup aspirations that needs a proven netminder. But given that option at last year’s trade deadline, he declined it. "We told Hank that if he didn't want to ride it out through this [rebuild] process, we'd find a good landing place for him," team owner James Dolan said in April. "But he said that he wanted to stay and see it through.”

In other words, Lundqvist is invested, and he refuses the easy route out. Surrounded by youth and beset by meagre expectations, he still wants to stay in New York. He wants to win as a Ranger. He wants to be his best. And he rejects the idea that this season is simply a prelude to greater things in years to come. “We’re good enough to win games; we are,” he told the New York Post in October. “Other people might want to let us off the hook because of the rebuild or the third period or whatever, but we are not allowing ourselves off the hook. We’re here to win.”

So good news for Rangers fans: there may be a healthy dose of madness in Lundqvist after all.

 
Pac Pobric