Henrik Lundqvist has always had to prove himself. He had to prove himself when he was selected in the seventh round, 205th overall in the 2000 draft by the Rangers (62 picks behind goaltender Brandon Snee, who the Rangers picked two rounds ahead of Lundqvist). He had to prove himself when he was splitting time with Kevin Weekes in the 2005-06 season. He had to prove himself when he let up six goals against the Devils in Game 1 of the 2005-06 Eastern Conference quarterfinals and was benched for Weekes in Game 2. Even after winning the 2011-12 Vezina, leading the league in shutouts twice, becoming the Rangers’ all-time wins leader and being the sole reason for any of their success since the 2004-05 lockout, he somehow needed to more to shut people up.
Last spring when Lundqvist single-handedly carried the Rangers back against the Penguins to save the season by allowing just three goals total in Games 5, 6 and 7 and then led them to a series win over the Canadiens and then did everything he could but score goals to try to beat the Kings in the Final, he finally silenced most of the critics. That’s “most” not “all”. There’s still this idea that Lundqvist needs to put his name on the Cup to solidify what he has accomplished or that it won’t mean anything. But the people that believe that notion are people like Michael Kay (and most likely his listeners too, if there are any) and not people that live in real life. Because under that theory, Corey Crawford, Antti Niemi, Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Osgood and every lesser goalie that has gotten their name on the Cup is better than Lundqvist.
For nearly his entire career, Henrik Lundqvist has been the Rangers. He has stood on his head in the regular season and done it again in the playoffs, doing everything humanly possible someone who can’t score goals can do. He has been surrounded by horrific offensive teams for most of his career and watched the organization decide to build a defensive core from scratch while he entered his prime. Despite this, the Rangers have been in the playoffs in eight of the nine seasons since the 2004-05 lockout, thanks to Lundqvist.
In the last six seasons, the Rangers have reached the postseason in five of those six years. In that time, they are 32-37, which means Lundqvist is 32-37 in the playoffs over that time (the go-to argument point for any Lundqvist critic is always his playoff record). In those 37 playoff losses, the Rangers have scored 57 goals or 1.54 goals per game. Here is the breakdown by goals scored in the losses and how many times they scored each amount of goals:
0 goals: 8
1 goal: 10
2 goals: 14
3 goals: 3
4 or more goals: 2
That’s 18 playoff losses when the Rangers couldn’t score more than one goal and 32 when they couldn’t score more than two.
I was always worried that Glen Sather would waste Lundqvist’s prime and career by building mediocre teams around him and wasting the chance at having a Vezina-winning franchise goalie. I figured Lundqvist’s career would come and go and we would be stuck watching another Mike Dunham-esque era eventually, always waiting for another Lundqvist to come around. But over the last few years, as that young defensive core grew into reliable and stable veterans, Sather has turned over the forwards on the team to build a consistent source of offense. And magically, the Rangers made it to the Stanley Cup Final last year and have appeared in two of the last three Eastern Conference finals.
When I heard that Lundqvist was missing Wednesday night’s game against the Bruins because he was hit in the throat two games prior on Saturday, I was nervous, but thought it was for precautionary reasons. (Then again, if the Rangers were going to be cautious, wouldn’t he have been removed from Saturday’s game or not have played on Monday?) When I heard that he could miss a few weeks, I was a little more than nervous. When I heard he could miss four to six weeks, I was depressed. When I heard he could have had a stroke as a result of the injury, I was in shock. How could the face of the franchise, who is signed up to be the Rangers goalie through 2020-21, not be looked at more carefully than he was after withering around in pain on Saturday? How could he have been not checked enough with a potentially life-threatening risk in play?
It sounds like Lundqvist is getting better and will be better with time. The problem is the whole “time” thing. Fortunately, the Rangers’ 18-5-0 run from Dec. 8 through the announcement that Lundqvist would miss Wednesday’s game has them with 65 points in 51 games and even if they were to go say 16-15-0 and play one-game-over-.500 hockey for the rest of the season, they would finish with 97 points, which would be one more than total from last season. And let’s say the Rangers did play .516 hockey for their last 31 games, the Panthers, who are in the ninth spot in the East would have to win 20 of their 31 remaining games or find a way to get 40 points in those games just to tie the Rangers. The Rangers are going to the playoffs. They just need Lundqvist to be 100 percent healthy and 100 percent ready when they get there.
If the Rangers hadn’t gone on that two-month run and built up enough of a cushion to be in the thick of the playoff picture rather than on the bubble of it where they usually are, we would have gotten to see what life is like without Lundqvist. We would have gotten to see what life is like not knowing what it’s like to know you have an all-world goalie in your net every night and someone who can steal games and build winning streaks. We would have gotten to see what would have happened if some insane fans had gotten their way last season and Sather didn’t give Lundqvist a contract extension. It’s not a life any Rangers fan should want to live. Thankfully four wins and eight points separate the Rangers from the closest non-playoff team and hopefully that lead never gets to the point of worrying about.
The Rangers are now 1-1-1 without Henrik Lundqvist and with Cam Tablot as their starter. On Wednesday, Talbot became the first Rangers goalie not named Henrik Lundqvist to beat the Bruins since April 8, 2006. On Saturday, he allowed three goals in a tough loss to the league-best Predators. On Sunday, he gave up three goals in an overtime loss to the Stars. It’s as exactly .500 as you can get from a backup goalie with the good, bad and so-so results that come with a win, loss and a tie. But it’s exactly what the Rangers need. It would be nice if Talbot could become Lundqvist 2.0, which he has looked like at times, but it’s unnecessary. They just need him to keep the team afloat, which is what they didn’t have in 2010-11 when Lundqvist was asked to start the last 25 games of the season after Martin Biron broke his collarbone. (And luckily Lundqvist did as the Rangers made the playoffs on the last day of the season.)
The Rangers are going to the playoffs unless a Mets-like collapse happens and all Tablot has to do is make sure that doesn’t happen while Lundqvist is out. It doesn’t matter what seed the Rangers are or who they play once they get in. The other seven Eastern Conference playoff teams are all capable of making a run to the Stanley Cup Final this season and the path to get there could be the hardest ever. They’re going to have to get by three of the seven teams to get back to where they were last June and all of them present a difficult challenge.
This team can survive for now without Henrik Lundqvist. But that’s for now. Eventually they will need their king back if they want to get to where they were last year and where they haven’t been in 21 years.