NEW YORK — “Enjoy the game.” That’s what Henrik Lundqvist had told himself. Embrace the situation, live in the moment, all that good psychological stuff.
Then the puck dropped Sunday. Everything Zen? I don’t think so. This was not a prayer garden. This was Madison Square Garden, and these were the New York Rangers, and they were facing elimination from the first round of the playoffs.
When bodies are blocking your vision, pucks are whizzing at you and teammates leave you no margin for error, enjoying the game is easier said than done – at least until you make 27 saves, complete a 1-0 shutout of the Washington Capitals, force a Game 7 on Monday night in D.C., punch the air in celebration and finally calm down again.
“After I said that, I started to think about it,” said Lundqvist after stripping off his gear, a satisfied smile on his face. “You say it. You want to enjoy it. But it’s …”
“It’s intense, and there’s a lot of pressure. There’s moments. There’s moments during the game where you have to pinch yourself, and you try to enjoy that. But then there’s moments where you feel like, ‘What is this? Why am I in this position?’ ”
Here’s why: Lundqvist decided to become a goaltender, and he grew up to play for the Rangers.
Lundqvist won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender last season. He was also a finalist for the Hart Trophy as most valuable player because he led the Rangers to the NHL’s second-best record. They scored 2.71 goals per game, 11th-best in the league.
[Related: Rangers' Derick Brassard, Henrik Lundqvist force Capitals to Game 7]
That dropped to 2.15 in the playoffs, where the games are tighter and the scoring is harder. The Rangers played blue-collar, shot-blocking defense and relied on King Henrik to make the 2012 Eastern Conference final. When Lundqvist allowed three or more goals, they were 0-7. When he allowed two or fewer, they were 10-3.
The Rangers were supposed to be better this season because they traded for Rick Nash, an elite goal-scorer. They were a popular pre-season pick to win the Stanley Cup.
But they earned only the sixth seed in the East after averaging 2.62 goals per game in the regular season, 15th in the NHL, and now they’re averaging 1.83 goals per game in the playoffs. The only teams worse have been eliminated: the Montreal Canadiens (1.80), St. Louis Blues (1.67) and Minnesota Wild (1.40).
Nash, appearing in only the second playoff series of his NHL career, has zero goals. Brad Richards, who seemed unprepared after the lockout and struggled in the regular season, has one. Ryan Callahan has provided his usual guts but not his usual goals. He has zero.
Marian Gaborik …
Well, he’s gone. The Rangers’ best offensive player in this series came from the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Gaborik deal at the trade deadline: Derick Brassard has two goals and five assists.
Derek Stepan has two game-winners after a breakout regular season but hasn’t created enough otherwise. Brian Boyle and Carl Hagelin have a couple of goals apiece, too.
“Obviously you don’t want to bank on your goalie making so many big saves, like he did,” said Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “But he takes a lot of pride in putting up that zero against them.”
The Capitals virtually have done no better. They have scored only one more goal (12-11) on 13 more shots (191-178) in this series. Alex Ovechkin, who had a strong game at both ends of the ice Sunday, has gone four games without a point, the worst drought of his playoff career. He has only one goal in this series. Except for defenseman Mike Green, who has two goals, no Cap has more than one goal.
But here is the problem for the Rangers: Though it has been tight, this series has been about home ice, and Game 7 won’t be at home for them.
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The Rangers scored only two goals in the first three games in D.C. They lost, 3-1. Then they lost, 1-0, in overtime. Then they lost, 2-1, in OT.
They won their first two games at MSG, 4-3. So Lundqvist actually has a better record when he gives up three or more goals (2-1) than when he allows two or fewer (1-2) right now. But that seems like an aberration.
Although the Rangers sustained a forecheck, drew penalties and didn’t give the Capitals a power play Sunday, they didn’t dominate. They struggled to generate scoring chances, even with the man advantage. They never really beat goaltender Braden Holtby. Their only goal came when Brassard fired from the point and hit the left glove of Caps defenseman Steve Oleksy, the puck fluttering into the net.
Asked if it was frustrating that the Rangers didn’t get more than one goal, Boyle said: “Not when they get zero. Feels good.”
Enjoy Game 7, Hank. No pressure.
“You make your legacy as a player in these type of situations,” said Rangers coach John Tortorella. “A number of our guys last year had a blast playing in these games. Some guys handle it. Some guys don’t.”
Lundqvist won two Game 7s last year, both by 2-1 scores, making 26 saves against the Ottawa Senators in the first round and 22 against these same Caps. Both games were at MSG.
“The ultimate goal for Hank, in his mind, is to win the Stanley Cup,” Tortorella said. “But you need to go through these type of situations to get there obviously.”
Obviously, you need some goals, too.
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