TORONTO – The King ended 2015-16 dethroned at the hands of a youngster in high-stakes competition. He started 2016-17 schooling a group of youngsters on a big stage.
Henrik Lundqvist couldn't have ended last season any worse. He was pulled in consecutive contests as his New York Rangers fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games to lose the Metro Division semifinal. Lundqvist was badly outplayed by rookie Matt Murray, who ended up winning 15 games to tie an NHL playoff rookie record and took home the Stanley Cup. Lundqvist went home with a 4.39 goals-against average and .867 save percentage for the spring. Not what we've grown to expect from a future Hall of Famer – and mildly alarming considering he'd turned 34 that March. He wasn't ancient by goalie standards, but by no means is 34 young for any pro athlete nowadays.
The World Cup of Hockey gave Lundqvist a chance to get his 2016-17 started on the right foot, to get a rhythm early and erase the taste of last April's whitewashing. The tourney didn't start as planned, as he ended up missing his native Sweden's first game due to illness. Jacob Markstrom filled in admirably in a Swedish win over Russia, though, and Lundqvist returned for a crucial rivalry battle with Finland Tuesday. Which version of the King would the Tre Kronor get? Turns out they got him at his best, even if he didn't think so. He helped Sweden weather the storm in the first period, when they were outplayed, and he stoned emerging young gun Teuvo Teravainen on the doorstep. Lundqvist had everyone in attendance at the Air Canada Centre fooled, however, as he still didn't feel mentally on point at that moment.
“I felt pretty rusty the first period, just not as aware as I wanted to be," Lundqvist told reporters after the game. "But I got some really good help with some loose pucks and stuff like that. And then in the second and third I felt more and more comfortable."
So comfortable that he came up huge to stop the Next Big Thing. Patrik Laine, the No. 2 overall pick at the 2016 draft, has been likened by many scouts to Alex Ovechkin, and it's easy to see why. Laine has a similar build, a similar swagger, a similar insatiable lust for scoring goals and a similarly vicious one-timer on the power play. The Finns set Laine up for the exact look they wanted – the one-timer on the power play from the top of the circle, a la Ovechkin – but Lundqvist won the battle against the young stud, flashing a dramatic glove hand to snatch the scorching puck out of mid-air.
“We had many good scoring chances, but he was playing awesome in the net, so we couldn’t score," Laine said. "When you don’t score any goals, it’s hard to win a game."
Sweden retained what was then a 1-0 lead, and Lundqvist scrambled to stop 13 more shots in the third period. One game, one shutout for the King.
“It was an important game for me," Lundqvist said. "You try to build your game, but at the same time you have to make sure you’re helping your team there. You can't just go out there and just try to feel good and start building your game. It’s too late for that. I had two (exhibition) games to do that, and now it’s for real.”
And the New York Rangers can only hope Lundqvist carries the momentum from this tournament into the NHL season. Whether it's fair or not, they desperately need him this year if they want to make any noise in the East. General manager Jeff Gorton did a nice job injecting the franchise with some promising young forwards over the off-season, trading for Mika Zibanejad and signing Jimmy Vesey and Brandon Pirri, but the Broadway blueline is in transition. Dan Boyle is gone. Keith Yandle is gone. Dan Girardi has been exposed in recent seasons as a below-average defensive player. Kevin Klein is a solid depth guy but far from elite. Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal can't do it all on their own, and there's no guarantee Brady Skjei makes a major leap toward being a high-impact regular. Translation: if the Rangers want to remain a playoff team, let alone a Stanley Cup contender, it'll come down to Hank. Not that we ever want to bet against him. He's a Vezina Trophy winner and Olympic gold medallist for a reason. Swedish right winger Loui Eriksson spoke Tuesday about the way Lundqvist makes Sweden more confident just by suiting up in the crease, and he typically has that effect on the Rangers, too.
Still, the debacle last spring sticks out, as does Lundqvist's advanced age. He may not have many years left as a top-flight goaltender in the NHL. That means the Rangers have to make their chances count – and so does Lundqvist. The question now is whether any realistic Stanley Cup drive for The King will have to take place on a different NHL team. That's one to answer down the road. For now, Lundqvist will focus on winning a World Cup. He spoke Tuesday about how much fun he had battling the Finns. It's a scary thought for Sweden's opponents when Hank feels pure glee as pressure increases.
“He’s been a top goalie in this league for over 10 years now, and that’s not a coincidence," said defenseman Erik Karlsson. " He’s been battling his health for a couple of days here, and that’s not something that we’ve been concerned about. He looked great in practice yesterday. I think it was his best practice with the two weeks we’ve been together. He came in today and played like himself. Good for him. I don’t think we expected anything less than what he gave us.”
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin