Henrik Lundqvist is one of the few athletes you can actually refer to as a greybeard and it’s accurate. He has a beard – and yes, it’s spectacular – and now that he’s 37 and in his 15th NHL season, some grey flecks are beginning to emerge around his chin. Hey, Alex Ovechkin has had the salt-and-pepper look for a couple of years now and some white hairs are even beginning to appear on Sidney Crosby. It happens and we all have to deal with it.
But if Lundqvist’s performance over the past two games is any indication, he is not prepared to go quietly into the night and hand his crown to the future tantalizing tandem of Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin. After sitting three straight games, Lundqvist backstopped the Rangers to back-to-back victories over the Detroit Red Wings and Carolina Hurricanes, stopping 80 of 83 shots while New York generated only 50 of their own. The 4-2 win over the Hurricanes Thursday night was vintage Lundqvist. After the first period, the Rangers had been outshot 22-6 and were leading 1-0.
So what to do about a 37-year-old goaltender who seems to thrive the more he works? While more and more NHL teams are loath to use their No. 1 in back-to-back games, it’s clear Lundqvist thrives in those situations. As Brett Cyrgalis of the New York Post points out, Lundqvist has had 85 back-to-back starts in his career and has a 54-23-8 mark with a .928 save percentage and a 2.12 goals-against average in the second of those games. When Lundqvist spoke at the NHL’s pre-season media tour in November, he made it clear that the fire still burns in him. “It’s not just to go out there and enjoy the game, and to enjoy all the things that come with it,” Lundqvist said. “It’s winning games. When you win games, that’s really what makes me happy.”
At 7-6-1, the Rangers are in what I call the “mushy middle” of the NHL, not good enough to be a serious contender, not bad enough to capitalize on having a high lottery pick. Are they good enough to make the playoffs? Well, after a small sample size, less than a quarter of the season, they’ve proved their good enough to hang around the wild-card fringes. They probably won’t make it, but that doesn’t mean Lundqvist can’t be a valuable contributor to them before his contract runs out after next season.
Because, you see, while it’s all well and good to try to engineer a tank and load up on picks and prospects, that approach is flawed. It takes far longer than people think and the pain is enormous. And there’s no guarantee that it will work. What young prospects need more than to be taught how to lose is to play in meaningful games and as long as the Rangers can do that, their young players will be learning valuable lessons and becoming battle-hardened.
Lundqvist has already cemented his legacy as one of the all-time greats, both as a Ranger and a goalie in the NHL. He will almost certainly retire without a Stanley Cup to his credit. He has earned the right to retire a Ranger and he has made it crystal clear that’s what he wants to do. So by keeping his team in games the way he did against the Hurricanes, it gives the rest of the Rangers reason to keep engaged and competitive, even in games where they’re being badly outplayed.
Through October and November of last season, Lundqvist had a 9-9-2 record with a .906 SP. He won only nine more of his next 31 starts to finish the season with an 18-23-10 record. “I still love the game,” he said. “I remember the feeling I had in November last year, just feeling like I really enjoy this. And in March, it was a different feeling. It was a huge difference in the way I felt and that’s why I needed to regroup a little bit after the season.”
Rangers coach David Quinn has already stated that he wants Lundqvist to start 60 percent of the games, with the other 40 going to Georgiev. That would put Lundqvist at about 50 starts. He started a full-season career low 52 games in 2018-19, but the starts now are about quality over quantity.
“Before, I didn’t think about the age,” Lundqvist said in September. “But now I feel like I want to prove (to) the young guys that I’m the older guy. Especially when you go 1-on-1, that age thing comes to mind sometimes. And it’s fun, you know? Especially when some of these guys are, what, 17 years younger, 18 years younger? It’s a big gap.”
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