Two hockey writers were congratulating each other Friday night at the Garden on how the Rangers’ Game 5 series-clinching victory would mean a well-needed Saturday at home, rather than in Pittsburgh.
“Enjoy your couch,” one writer said to the other.
A few feet away, Henrik Lundqvist mistakenly thought the comment was meant for him.
“Thank you,” the Rangers goalie said at his locker with a smile.
Now there’s someone who deserves a few extra days rest.
In a series in which Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury made the Rangers work for absolutely every puck that found its way behind him, Lundqvist’s numbers were still better. Fleury posted a 2.12 goals against average and .927 save percentage, but Lundqvist responded with a 1.53 goals against average and .939 save percentage.
Game 5 was particularly impressive because Fleury (34 saves) did everything a goalie can to steal a road playoff game, and yet the Blueshirts advanced because their King (37 saves) wouldn’t yield.
“The last two periods we fired everything we could at them and came up short,” Pens coach Mike Johnston said.
Getting rest these next few days – as the Rangers await either the Capitals or Islanders in the second round – will feel more satisfying for Lundqvist because it has been earned and not forced.
The partially torn blood vessel in his neck, sustained on a Jan. 31 puck to the throat, kept Lundqvist at arm’s length from his teammates for almost two months. He had no choice. He wasn’t a part of it. He had to wait.
Cam Talbot’s 16-4-3 record and stellar play in Lundqvist’s absence from Feb. 4 through March 26 was critical in helping the Rangers clinch the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage through the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But there was also the concern over whether Lundqvist – notoriously a slow starter – would be able to get back to speed for the playoffs.
It’s difficult to remember those concerns now, after Lundqvist’s 5-2-0 record in his final seven starts and now his 4-1 mark in the playoffs.
After eliminating the Penguins, the Rangers await the winner of the Islanders-Capitals series.
“I think when I came back playing, then I just really appreciated being a part of the team, being with the guys,” Lundqvist, 33, said after Friday night’s win, which earned the team off days on Saturday and Sunday. “It was very tough mentally to be away from the game for that long. But then I kind of settled in and got used to playing.”
In Game 5, Lundqvist denied Evgeni Malkin (scoreless for the series) on a first-period break-in. He stopped Sidney Crosby with 9:09 left in the second period and then kicked Patric Hornqvist’s rebound away with his left pad as Pens forward Chris Kunitz crashed on top of him in the crease.
Nick Spaling only was able to beat the Rangers goalie late in the second period when a Steve Downie whack of the puck deflected over Lundqvist off Spaling’s arm in traffic. Pittsburgh couldn’t get a clean shot by Lundqvist all series, though, and he reminded Spaling of that with 13:20 remaining in the third on a right pad kick of a rebound and 4:20 into overtime by denying Crosby’s deflection.
“Every save feels like a big save. … One mistake and it’s over,” Lundqvist said. “I think most of their goals were rebounds or getting loose pucks.”
Last postseason, Lundqvist played well enough to win and his stats of a 2.14 goals against average and .927 save percentage still weren’t as good as the numbers he posted against the Penguins. Granted, Pittsburgh tried to play a more conservative style, but he was facing some of the game’s best players.
It would have been easy, especially, for Fleury’s excellence to make the difference in Game 5.
Instead, Lundqvist – the Rangers’ franchise leader with 97 career playoff appearances – stood tall. Among all 30 NHL clubs, he is one of just two goalies who lead their franchise’s all-time playoff appearances list. Martin Brodeur (Devils) is the other.
Brodeur also has three Stanley Cups, though. Lundqvist’s trophy case is calling.
“It comes down to trust,” Lundqvist said of how a team must accomplish a goal. “You can’t do it on your own. You can’t rely on one or two guys. It’s just trusting everyone that you’re on the same page, and that’s something you create all year long in the season … You trust everyone. You have to.
NO NEWS ON MATS
The Rangers are not expected to have an update on top-line right wing Mats Zuccarello until they return to practice Monday. Zuccarello was hit in the head with a Ryan McDonagh slap shot in the first period of Game 5 and left with 3:58 remaining and did not return. Coach Alain Vigneault said postgame that someone had told him Zuccarello was “alright,” but a team spokesman said Zuccarello was still being evaluated.
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