King of New York

King of New York
By Ross McKeon, Yahoo Sports
November 14, 2007

Ross McKeon
Yahoo Sports
It’s good to be king, just ask Henrik Lundqvist.

Make that King Henry, as he’s known in and around Madison Square Garden where the mighty Rangers faithful flock and watch the 25-year-old Swedish sensation defend that most precious 24 square feet of midtown Manhattan real estate.

The New York Rangers roster is made up of an eclectic group. There’s the flashy megastar in Jaromir Jagr, the engaging future Hall of Famer in Brendan Shanahan, the two headline-grabbing free-agent signees – Chris Drury and Scott Gomez – and hockey’s mouthiest of agitators, Sean Avery.

Yet these days, it all begins and ends with Lundqvist, who is single-handedly keeping the Rangers afloat while the team figures how to bury the biscuit at the other end of the ice. Since New York has scored a league-low 34 goals, it’s a good thing the Rangers have allowed a league-low 30.

“We added some good players and we’re playing well as a team, we just need to get some goals,” Lundqvist said with a laugh. “They’ll come, it’s just a matter of time.”

After appearing exclusively in the team’s first 16 games, Lundqvist was granted a well-deserved night off Saturday night in Toronto. He’s expected to return between the pipes Wednesday night when the Rangers continue a four-game trip that includes another game on Thursday night in Philadelphia.

And Lundqvist hopes to pick up where he left off. With a 1.62 goals-against average, a .940 save percentage and four shutouts – all ranking among the top five in the league – Lundqvist looks to maintain a streak that includes allowing two or fewer goals in all but four of his 16 starts.

He knows he has to make a difference because as long as the team is struggling to score in front of him, every point earned in the standings is huge.

“It’s going to be a close race all the way,” Lundqvist said. “It’s all about special teams and minimizing your mistakes. The game is so tight right now.”

Not bad for a player who lasted until the seventh round, selected 205th overall, in the 2000 draft by the Rangers.

And it’s a good thing Lundqvist is patient because no one would blame him if he filed suit for a lack of support. But that’s the thing about Lundqvist. It’s all good, all the time, ever since he first stepped onto an NHL ice surface in 2005 when the league was coming out of a season lost due to a lockout.

“When I first came up I didn’t know how long I might be here, but things went pretty good,” Lundqvist said.

Lundqvist was pegged at the outset of the 2005-06 season as the backup to Kevin Weekes, who picked the wrong time in his career to get hurt. Lundqvist jumped in and hasn’t jumped out since.

By the end of his first season, Lundqvist piled up a number of impressive accolades. He was the first rookie since Jim Carey in 1995 to become a Vezina Trophy finalist. In rolling to a 30-12-9 record, Lundqvist ranked fifth among all goalies in average goals-against (2.24), fourth in save percentage (.922) and tied for 11th in wins.

And that doesn’t include a mid-season sojourn to Torino, Italy, where Lundqvist made his mark internationally. He won five of six games, posted a 2.33 GAA and .907 save percentage to backstop the Swedes to Olympic gold over archrival Finland.

“The Olympics were very special,” said the native of Are, Sweden. “To win was big for Swedish hockey. And to be part of a group of players I really idolized growing up – (Peter) Forsberg, (Mats) Sundin – is something I will never forget.”

Things have never been the same.

“I could definitely feel it when I got back to New York, people coming up to me and congratulating me, I could really feel the support,” he said.

The non-hockey community took notice, too. Shortly after his Olympic conquest, People magazine in April included the 6-foot-1, 195-pound goalie with a beach boy look on its list of “The World’s 100 Most Beautiful People.”

Certainly after helping the Rangers end a seven-year playoff drought Lundqvist would suffer some sort of sophomore slump. Even getting swept in the opening round by cross-river rival New Jersey wasn’t as bitter a pill to swallow because of the bright future.

Lundqvist took a calculated risk, too, abandoning his conservative suburban living to relocate right into the heart of The Big Apple before the start of last season. He thought with all the shows, restaurants and late-night hot spots, why shouldn’t he take more advantage of his time away from the rink?

“It can be a distraction, too, but I just really enjoy it,” said Lundqvist, whose twin brother Joel has seen time at forward with the Dallas Stars.

If anything, Lundqvist was even better last season. His finishing kick looked like this: 16-4-6 with a 1.73 GAA and a .936 save percentage in his last 28 games of the season. It’s no wonder he was a Vezina finalist again, and Lundqvist took another step in the postseason by leading the Rangers to a first-round sweep of Atlanta before bowing out in six games against Buffalo.

There haven’t been many times when Lundqvist has felt the need to get away, but his interest in playing the bass guitar provides the perfect escape. He’s been playing since the age of 8, and when he’s at home in Sweden he’s part of a rock band called “Box Play.”

“There’s a lot of hockey to think about and there’s a lot of time spent at the rink,” Lundqvist said. “My game is not that physical, but there is so much mentally. This is something that helps my mind and my concentration.”

Rock star, Olympic champion and starring on center stage in New York. Yes, it’s good to be king.

Ross McKeon is an NHL editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Ross a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Wednesday, Nov 14, 2007 2:01 pm, EST

Email to a Friend | View Popular