2005-10-21 / Sports

Lundvquist’ Impressive Start Makes A Net Gain For The Rangers

By John J. Buro

Henrik Lundqvist is there, primarily, because Kevin Weekes has a strained groin and must sit out until it completely heals. The conspiracy theorists will say that, even if Weekes should return soon, he may have a difficult time getting back on the ice.

The ultimate decision will be left to Tom Renney, who was appointed Head Coach of the New York Rangers after Glen Sather stepped down in 2004. At this pace, however, Renney’s decision is more likely to be guided by the play of Lundqvist, a 23 year-old rookie from Are, Sweden with a grand total of four National Hockey League games to his credit.

What these games may not suggest is that Lundqvist is already primed for success. Last season, he appeared in 44 games with the Frolunda Indians of the Swedish Elite League and amassed highs of 33 victories, a 1.79 goals-against average, a .936 save percentage and six shutouts. In 19 of those wins, he allowed one goal or less and only three times in a winning effort did he yield two or more goals.

“He has a full understanding of the game,” said John Davidson, the MSG Color Analyst who understood the game well enough as a player to lead the Rangers to the 1979 Stanley Cup Finals. “He works well with the Rangers’ goalie coach, Benoit Allaire and, because of all his experience, there’s no panic in his game.”

After blanking the Florida Panthers, 4-0, last Monday, it appears Lundqvist has arrived. He has won his last three starts [after losing his debut to the New Jersey Devils, 3-2, in OT on October 8] and, of goaltenders who have appeared in at least four games or 100 minutes, leads the NHL with a 1.23 GAA. He has stopped 95 of 100 shots for an even .950%; in the process, as the Rangers remain in first place.

“I saw him play a lot during training camp and his skill level was so much more advanced than a rookie,” Davidson noted. “We assumed he would play well. And, now that we’ve seen him play [in game situations], it reinforces what our thoughts were. His reputation is solid and his game is just as solid.”

Lundqvist, who was drafted in the seventh round [No. 205 overall] of the 2000 Entry Draft, exacted revenge against the Devils during his first home start on October 13. However, the 4-1 victory was more than just a personal milestone. The true significance lay in a past underachievement. The win was just New York’s fourth in its last 42 regular-season games against their rivals from across the Hudson. Then, in another home game two days later against the Atlanta Thrashers, he won the adulation of the Madison Square Garden fans with a 28-save performance during a 5-1 beatdown; Lundqvist flirted with his first NHL shutout before Ilya Kovalchuk tallied midway through the third period.

The 6’1, 194 matinee idol –a guitarist in a Swedish band called Power Play, ironically- has already achieved rock star status. He was announced as a three-star selection in those games and the crowd –perhaps looking for something to cheer for, in that the Rangers haven’t made the playoffs since 1997- has gravitated toward him.

“I want to stay here for a long time; hopefully, I’ll be playing a lot of games in this arena,” he added with a smile. “But, everything can change so fast. If I get the chance, I would love to play for many years, and make the playoffs for many years here. We’ll see what happens. Right now, I’m loving it. I’m living my dream.”

“Henrik’s got a real good focus of the puck,” Renney evaluated. “He tracks it well and remains in control. There are still some things to work on, but he’s a very confident player.”

“When goaltending is good,” Davidson noted, “it’s a real good insurance policy. People feel comfortable. They know, if there’s a mistake, someone will be there to take care of business.”

“If we try to make a play,” said Jaromir Jagr, who is tied for the scoring lead with 10 points, “he’s there to save us. It’s all about confidence.

“If we make a mistake and the other team scores, we may have to play a different game.”

For several years, Lundqvist had.

“I learned something with each of the National tournaments I had played in back home,” he recalled. “There were many skilled players and we always played at a high tempo. Each year, I have improved my game; this year, I was ready to take the next step. I felt more ready than ever. I wanted to face the best players.”

At this point in time, he is among them.

“No one really knew, going in, how this would work,” added Davidson. “But, it’s been a good start for him.”

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