Thursday, June 16, 2011

Player Review: Henrik Lundqvist Backbones Rangers Team Once Again

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
After watching the tremendous performance of Tim Thomas to lead the Bruins to the Stanley Cup it is only fitting that today we take a look at the season put in the by the backbone of the New York Rangers’; Henrik Lundqvist. 

There is no position in the NHL that seems to be as volatile to performance as that of the NHL goaltender in the post-lockout era.  Year after year a goalie will rise with a career season and be unable to back up that performance the following season.  While many teams in the league are unsure of what they are going to get from the man between the pipes, the New York Rangers always know what they can count on from Henrik Lundqvist.  Lundqvist turned in another stellar campaign in which he was the most valuable player on the team (fifth straight season) during possibly his best statistical season of his career. 

In 65 games, Lundqvist posted a 2.28 goals against average with a .923 save percentage to go along with a league leading 11 shutouts.  Those numbers certainly warranted him his fourth Vezina trophy nomination, but in large part due to the team only finishing 8th in the Eastern Conference, he was overlooked for goaltenders that had better team success.

There is no way to quantify what the consistency of Lundqvist meant to the New York Rangers during what was otherwise a tumultuous season in terms of the roster.  With injuries mounting all around him and the incorporation of multiple rookie defenders into the lineup in front of him Lundqvist was once again a steadying influence for the team.  Beyond the saves themselves, the most impressive thing about Lundqvist is his compete level.  There is no doubt that he will give up the occasional soft goal, but when the night is over he will stand up and freely admit it with no excuses.  That level of competitive fire and self-accountability is something that filters through a locker room and is something every New York Ranger could learn from.

One key to the season for Lundqvist was the strong play of backup Martin Biron.  The play of Biron allowed Lundqvist to stay fresh longer during the season and also gave the coaching staff the confidence to sit Lundqvist during two different rough patches over the course of the year.  The first rest period came in November and after Thanksgiving Lundqvist went on a tear posting a 13-6-2 record with a 1.70 goals against average and .943 save percentage.  The run was culminated with the Rangers’ finest performance of the season in a shutout win over the Canucks at home.

After another slip, Biron was installed again for two games and just like the first time it appeared to reenergize Lundqvist and the team certainly needed it.  Following the second sit down Biron would break his collarbone in practice meaning that Lundqvist was the man for the last 26 games of the season and he responded once again with another huge stretch drive to get the Rangers in the playoffs.

It is possible that the two lulls Lundqvist had and the way he responded to them made him 2010-11 campaign even more impressive than those we have seen before.  When a player struggles, especially one that has been so consistent, there is always a hint of worry that they have lost something, but with Lundqvist it is more a loss of his technique that he has to get back to and then he takes off again.

The only thing to change about the 2010-11 season for Lundqvist would be having Biron remain healthy so Henrik could have gotten at least a couple games of rest down the stretch to be mentally and physically fresh for the playoffs.  If Biron can stay healthy for the entire 2011-12 season and keep Lundqvist fresh, then the Rangers become even more dangerous come playoff time.

With another year of experience for the core of the defense and the lessons Lundqvist has learned about taking care of his body and dedication to hockey, expect the 2011-12 season to be another tremendous one for Lundqvist.  There has yet to be a season in his six years with the Rangers where Lundqvist had the best statistical season amongst NHL netminders, but over the course of his career he has certainly been the most consistent of them all.  It is now up to the rest of the Rangers to match the exploits of their netminder if they are going to get him the championship he deserves.

Grade: A