NEW YORK — For Henrik Lundqvist, the story of Game 7 did not begin in the third period Wednesday night, when he held off the Philadelphia Flyers and secured a 2-1 victory for the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. It began in the third period Tuesday night, when he sat on the bench at Wells Fargo Center, beaten, angry.
Lundqvist had allowed four goals on 23 shots through two periods, and he had been pulled for only the third time in 73 playoff appearances – for the first time in five years. He looked ahead as the Rangers finished their 5-2 loss. He used those 20 minutes to rest his body and reset his mind.
“Right away, I kind of just forgot about that game,” Lundqvist said. “I started thinking in my head about what was coming.”
Lundqvist did not want it to come to a Game 7, not again, no matter his history of success, no matter the romance of MSG. But here it was. At least he had been through it before – four times before, in fact, three in the previous two years. He steeled himself for the stakes and tension. He embraced the experience and opportunity.
[Related: Rangers defeat Flyers in Game 7, face Penguins in Round 2]
If you listened closely after Game 6, you could hear disgust in Lundqvist’s voice. Steve Mason had outplayed him twice in the series after returning from a concussion. “They did pretty much everything better than us,” Lundqvist said then, “even the goaltending.” He didn’t say “including the goaltending.” He said “even the goaltending.”
“I was more mad than anything,” Lundqvist said. “I didn’t get the win. I knew I had to match Mason’s play.”
Through 40 minutes of Game 7, Mason was the first star. The Rangers took a 2-0 lead in the second period when Dan Carcillo and Benoit Pouliot banged home beautiful passes, plays on which Mason had no chance. But the Rangers could have made it 3-0 or 4-0 or 5-0. They outshot the Flyers, 18-5, even though they killed two penalties.
Mason stoned Martin St-Louis and Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin, flashing his glove, flying across the crease, sticking out his pads. Lundqvist got a little lucky, meanwhile, when he sprawled on the ice, left the top of the net open and saw Claude Giroux fire the puck over the bar.
Then, 4:32 into the third, Jason Akeson cut the Rangers’ lead to 2-1. He fired from the right circle. His shot was blocked by defenseman Marc Staal, but in a blur, he swiped the rebound past Lundqvist on the far side. Uh-oh.
“Obviously when they scored that goal, I knew it was going to be an intense game,” Lundqvist said. “They got some confidence. They kept coming pretty hard. It was nerve-wracking, but it was exciting.”
[Report: Canucks to fire coach John Tortorella, after one forgettable season]
Here was the whole season – the bad schedule, the rough start, the transition to new coach Alain Vigneault, the eventual improvement, the post-Olympic adjustment, the stretch run, everything – riding on a one-goal lead. Lundqvist knew how much of it was out of his hands.
“All it takes is a bad bounce,” Lundqvist said. “Even though you feel like it’s under control, the game is so fast. All it takes is it to hit someone or a skate or a leg, and it’s in. I didn’t feel relaxed, but I still felt confident in how we were playing.”
Lundqvist did all he could, which was all he could do. The Flyers outshot the Rangers in the third, 11-5. But Lundqvist handled a knuckleball from a driving Giroux and covered up. He covered up another puck with Sean Couturier falling on top of him. He stoned Michael Raffl in close. The Rangers never took a penalty; it just seemed liked it. They blocked shots like John Tortorella was still their coach.
“We basically killed it off, it was like a PK there for a while,” said Rangers center Brad Richards. “It took a while tonight, to be honest. A lot of clock watching. A lot of icings and whistles.”
[Watch: Wild win wild one, beat Avs in Game 7 overtime]
A lot of saves. Then finally the horn blew, and the Rangers and Lundqvist had done it again. The Rangers are 6-0 all-time in Game 7s at Madison Square Garden – 4-0 in the past three years. Lundqvist is 4-1 in Game 7s with a 1.00 goals-against average, a .963 save percentage and one shutout.
Over the last nine times the Rangers have faced elimination, Lundqvist is 7-2 with a 1.43 GAA, a .951 SP and three shutouts – including 6-0 with a 0.98 GAA, a .965 SP and two shutouts at MSG.
This is why they call him King, and this is the biggest reason the Rangers have a chance to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. The Penguins have better superstars in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They have a much better power play. But the Rangers are a better possession team, with a forecheck that causes turnovers against teams with shaky defense corps, like the Flyers and Penguins. They have a strong PK. And they have the clear advantage in goal with Lundqvist.
If it goes to a Game 7, whom would you rather have? Marc-Andre Fleury? This is what Lundqvist does. This is what the Rangers do. Even if they wish they didn’t. They haven’t won a series in less than seven games since 2008.
“If this is the only way, we’ll take it,” Lundqvist said with a laugh. “I think we’d all rather do it faster. But when it comes down to it, to win games like this, it’s something that we’ll remember. It’s inspiring to go out and play a game like this with the pressure and excitement. It’s all on the line. You have to enjoy it. You play so many games that if you don’t value a game like this, I think you need to think again.”
MORE NHL COVERAGE ON YAHOO SPORTS: