Sunday, May 20, 2012

Lundqvist's Journey is Nearly Complete ...

By Larry Wigge

Now, it can be told. The secret is out.

There was a great transformation in the way Henrik Lundqvist plays since last August. It might be noticeably apparent, but it's there nonetheless. 

You might be able to trace the evolution of the New York Rangers goaltender to one or all of the following: First Lundqvist married Therese Andersson lovely young lady and then secondly, he lost 12-13 pounds, after changing his workout routine and his eating habits this past summer.

As the story goes, Lundqvist said that goaltender coach Benoit Allaire told him something always happens when they celebrate his 30th birthday, which he did in March 2. It may have been Allaire's attempt at getting King Henrik to work a bit during the offseason ... more than usual.

"I remember Benny told me after last year, that goalies, when they're closing in on age 30, they usually get better. They have a better understanding," Lundqvist explained. "But ..."

Before completing his train of thought, Lundqvist came right out with it.

"Now, I think I'm getting a better understanding of the game and reading plays and players," he continued. "I guess, around 30, you have a better understanding and you can do something about it ... you're not slow yet."

Lundqvist said he felt so much better going into his seventh NHL season. Not just He physically. He said he felt renewed.

Then came the proclamation that he told his family and his closest friends last August.

"I'm going to be the best," Lundqvist said. "And that's that."

So far. He not only topped the 30 wins he had in his six previous seasons, Henrik had 39 wins and a 1.96 goals-against average, tops for his career.

This season and playoffs has been the closest Lundqvist has come to perfection.

On Saturday afternoon, Henrik stopped 36 shots, some of which were of the special variety, en route to his second shutout this series against the New Jersey Devils for a 3-0 triumph for the New York Rangers to run the series to 2-1 in favor of the Rangers. The last New York goaltender to post two shutouts in a playoff series was Mike Richter in 1997. 

"I was focused on every shot," Lundqvist said. "As a goalie, you often find yourself in the zone."

Lundqvist's teammates and coach have seen this side of him.

"I've been a part of a lot of games where he gets in a zone like that," said defenseman Marc Staal. "You could tell early on he was at his best."

"He's been the backbone of our team for a long time now," said defenseman Dan Girardi. "He is making huge saves, stopping breakaways and backdoor plays, we just feed off his saves and turn the offense going the other way."

Just like the Rangers team ... blocking shots ... blocking shooting lanes. In other words, in the shutdown mode.

"It's a bit of our personality," Tortorella said of his team's ability to feed off Lundqvist. "That's a bit of who we are. And I think Henrik displays that, how he does compete. And he's a great competitor as far as his preparation and as far as what he does for this hockey club."

Even the opposing coach Peter DeBoer was effusive in telling his side of it.

"I don't know. I think their goalie was the difference," DeBoer said. "We're not the first team that Lundqvist has done this to."

Henrik and identical twin brother Joel were born to Eva Johansson and Peter Lundqvist. They grew up in Are, an area where alpine skiing is the most popular winter activity, but Henrik and Joel chose to play ice hockey over the more popular winter sports. Henrik and Joel, who was selected as a center by the Dallas Star, improvised, shoveling the snow off the lake near their home to skate on it. Sounds like the Sedins, eh?

As a youngster Henrik Lundqvist watched videos of his favorite Swedish goalie, Peter Lindmark, and two NHL stars, Patrick Roy and Dominik Hasek, incorporating elements of Roy's butterfly style and Hasek's unorthodox technique. But ...

For competitive hockey, Henrik and Joel had to travel from Are to Jarpen, Sweden, about 30 minutes east. It was during one of those car rides that a 9-year-old Henrik started plotting his future. He dreamed of playing in the NHL, but how would a scout find them -- out in the wilderness.

But the Rangers did find Lundqvist in the seventh round, 205th overall pick, in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. But not without some luck ... Henrik, was in fact, the 22nd goalie chosen in that draft.

"You're just throwing darts," said Phoenix Coyotes Don Maloney, who used to be the Rangers assistant general manager.

He then described the arm-twisting that was involved with a couple of his scouts over Lundqvist, the goalie that scouts observed at 18 had loads of natural ability, sharp reflexes and a strong work ethic augmented by his competitive spirit, but he lacked consistency. Martin Madden, then the Rangers' chief scout, watched Lundqvist in two tournaments in early 2000 and came away unimpressed. But, Christer Rockstrom, then the team’s head European scout, held a different perspective.

Living in Sweden, Rockstrom saw Lundqvist play more regularly and rated him No. 1 on the Rangers' list of eligible European goalies. Rockstrom pushed for the Rangers to draft Lundqvist in the middle rounds, but Madden overruled him.

But in the sixth round and seventh rounds, Maloney turned to his right, to Rockstrom. "Is that your top goalie in Europe?" Maloney asked Rockstrom.

Rockstrom nodded in the affirmative. And with that, Lundqvist was a member of the Rangers.

It didn't take Madden to long to come over to Lundqvist's side. In 2004-05 while the NHL was locked out, Lundqvist was joined in Europe by several established goalies like Miikka Kiprusoff and Jose Theodore. Henrik led the league in save percentage (.936) and goals against average (1.79). In the playoffs, he was even better, recording six shutouts in 14 games, allowing only 15 goals, as Frolunda, Lundqvist's team, captured another title.

To this day, Lundqvist says, he knew, he could make it to the NHL. He didn't know then of the argument Madden and Rockstrom had over him. But, there was one more reason to slow down the express from coming into the station. His name was Al Montoya, the University of Michigan alum who was the sixth overall pick by the Rangers in the 2004 draft. But that was only a small obstacle in the way of King Henrik.

Obstacles are the root of every great athlete, whether it be Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby. Some where too small or too this or that. With Lundqvist, it was technique.

At the request of his new goalie coach, Benoit Allaire, began playing a more conservative style, deeper in the net. The switch maximized Lundqvist's quickness, one of his main assets and enabled him to glide from post to post with an economy of movement. That was away from the norm -- where you want your goalies to come out and challenge the shooers.

Lundqvist acceded to Allaire's way of thinking. He accepted the new approach, often spending 30 minutes on the ice with Allaire before practice. It worked for Henrik.

But Henrik Lundqvist became a man for all seasons. When time allows, he jams with his band, the Noise Upstairs, which includes John McEnroe and Jay Weinberg, son of Max Weinberg, the longtime drummer for the E Street Band. He once was voted the best dressed man in Sweden. People magazine listed him among the world’s 100 most beautiful people. And he tends a mean goal.

"He's the best goalie in the world," Rangers center Brad Richards said.

Through the years, Lundqvist has noticed that not everyone who gets a chance to win the Stanley Cup takes advantage of it. You may recall Ray Bourque, making it to the Cup finals when he was a youngster but never really taking that success until he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche late in his career.

"The clock is ticking," recalled Lundqvist, during the Devils series. "You don't know how many more chances you're going to get."

Henrik Lundvist was right on. Thirty-six saves and he's ready to go for the Cup. His transformation is now complete.

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