Thursday, March 3, 2016

Henrik Lundqvist is grooming his way for another Cup run

By Larry Wigge

There was a quiet confidence in his voice and a sparkle in his eyes.

Glove save. Kick save and a beauty.

Every ounce of his being was being tested in a 35-save 2-1 New York Rangers victory at St. Louis on February 25.

Lundqvist became the first goaltender in NHL history with at least 30 wins in 10 of his first 11 NHL seasons. He became the third goaltendeer in NHL history to earn 30 or more wins in at least 10 different seasons, along with Marty Broduer, who had 14, and Patrick Roy, who has 13.

The Are, Sweden, native, has allowed two or fewer goals in 16 of his last 23 appearances, including 14 of his last 18 games.

It reminded me of the spring of 2014, when Lundvist led the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup finals against the Los Angeles Kings.

"Just look at our final series against the Kings," he said. "Three games went into overtime and we hit the post in each OT."

At that point, Lundqvist paused to think about how close the Rangers were to winning the Cup. Then he added, "We're talking about millimeters here and the puck would have gone in, instead of out. The difference being there as a winner instead of not, is such a fine line."

Lundvist led the Rangers to the conference finals last spring ... and he looked to be in fine form against the Blues.

"I can feel the pressure is coming," Lundqvist explained. "We're getting closer and closer and it's tight in the standings. You need to make the most of every game here. You can't take anything for granted ... and that's why I’m trying to prepare like it’s the playoffs right now."

Said defenseman Marc Staal, "When Hank's playing like that, we feel like we can beat anyone. That’s why he's our best player. And on nights like this, you get a win where maybe you shouldn't have."

Lundvist was steal for the Rangers when he was selected with a seventh round pick, 205th choice, in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. He has become the face of the franchise ... and young at heart at 34.

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.

Still energized at 34?

"I feel as motivated and energized as I did 10 years ago to play this game, to try to be better, to help the team win," said Lundqvist. "I think that's where it starts for all of us players. How much do you want it? How much do you want to work to improve as a player? And I feel that as much today as, like I said, 10 years ago.

"So I don't feel that old. I feel like I'm in the stage of my career right now where I'm having a lot of fun, but I also appreciate a lot about the game and where I'm at."

How does he stay in shape?

"I've played a lot of tennis this summer," he says. "These days I don't want to spend hours at the gym and I find tennis to be a great exercise for me. You need quick feet, there are lots of turns and twists, back and forth, just like on the ice.

"I just want to get back into the rhythm of things and get back the feel for stopping pucks."

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said, "I've been here three years and I don't see any decline. All I see really is a goaltender that's basically getting better."

Where does he get this hockey passion?

Henrik and identical twin brother Joel were born to Eva Johansson and Peter Lundqvist. Although Henrik's father Peter was the local ski instructor, he wasn't disappointed that his boys were more interested in hockey than skiing and nurtured their passion by driving them to countless practices. 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.

"My father has a remarkable ability to bring people together," Lundqvist said. "There is no way he would be where he is today without his support."

He recalls with fondness how his parents always wanted him and his twin brother, Joel, to "just have fun" and how "they never gave us pressure to perform."

Is it true that when the coach asked who wanted to play goalie, he raised your hand for you?

"Yeah, he did," Henrik said. "Growing up, we did everything together. We were the type of twins that finished each others' sentences. I'd start saying something and he'd finish it, and the other way around. So yeah, he just knew I wanted to play in goal."

They played together at every level. Junior team, national team, pro team back home. The first time Henrik did not have him on my team was when he moved here, to New York, when I was 23.

Did you always have the great reflexes?

"Sometimes I don't know if I have that great reflexes," he said. "It's more about reading the situation, reading the shot and understanding what's going to happen. You do a lot of analysis. When you see the play develop, you try to be a step ahead of the game all of the time.

"When you start out, you just think it's fun. You don't realize the mental aspect of the game when you start playing in goal as an eight-year-old. When you turn 15, 16, you start to play more important games. And the pressure -- that's when you realize, OK, there's a big part of the game that you can't practice out on the ice."

Lundqvist won the Vezina Trophy (as the best goalie in the NHL) in 2012. And he led Sweden to the gold medal in Torino in 2014.

Most of those accomplishments came after he turned 30. Lundqvist said that goaltender coach Benoit Allaire told him something always happens when they celebrate his 30th birthday, which he did in March 2.

"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."

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

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 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.

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, 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 shooters.

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," Red Wings center Brad Richards said.

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 ...

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.

When Henrik Lundqvist became the third goaltendeer in NHL history to earn 30 or more wins in at least 10 different seasons, along with Marty Broduer, who had 14, and Patrick Roy, who has 13, that thought came to mind. Again.

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

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