Henrik Lundqvist enters Rangers uncertainty with prideful performance
This was the perspective of a 38-year-old, 15-year veteran who understands that the ride is not going to last very much longer, let alone forever. This was the perspective of Henrik Lundqvist, whose surprise 128th consecutive Rangers postseason start on Saturday ended in a 3-2 defeat to Carolina at Toronto in the opener of the best-of-five qualifier.
“I’m just happy, you know, that I got an opportunity to play. I enjoy it. I enjoy being out there and compete,” said the King, who was excellent in the match dominated by the ’Canes most of the way. “Obviously we didn’t get the win, but I think we did a lot of good things and watch some video and learn and show a little better next time.”
I don’t know. Would Lundqvist have been so mellow after a Game 1 playoff defeat in, say, 2008, 2013 or 2017? I don’t remember it that way. But maybe that’s me. Lundqvist always has talked about savoring the moment and enjoying the journey. Maybe he wouldn’t have expressed appreciation for getting a playoff start back then because, honestly, of course he was starting every game. But then, nobody would have asked him how it felt to play. I sure wouldn’t have.
The plan, as acknowledged by Lundqvist, was for Igor Shesterkin to get the assignment. But the rookie, categorized under the “unfit to play” catch-all, could not go after suffering some sort of injury either in Friday’s practice or Wednesday’s exhibition match against the Islanders in which he played the first 29:15 and remained on the bench for the duration. This is not COVID-related. Shesterkin was watching the game from the stands. There were, by the way, plenty of good seats available.
So Friday night, Lundqvist got the call. This may not be the Lundqvist of 2012 but neither is it the Lundqvist who started only one of the team’s final 19 games before the break and evinced memories of the 1973 Willie Mays when he did get in. Rather, this is the Lundqvist who used the pause to rebuild his game while home in Sweden and shined through the two-week summer camp that preceded this tournament.
“I approached this camp really open-minded, so whatever they asked me to do, I’d be ready for it,” said Lundqvist, who came up with a handful of sterling saves among his total of 34 and was blameless on the goals. “Obviously the plan was to play Igor, but they told me [Friday night] that I was going in. Things like that happen.”
All things being equal, Shesterkin likely will get the Game 2 start if he is healthy. Lundqvist was not culpable, but the Rangers never quite seemed in sync. Maybe the Russian’s puck-handling ability would have blunted Carolina’s furious rush right out of the gate, but he wouldn’t have been able to do that on his own.
When Lundqvist said his team did a lot of good things and needed to be a little better, his nose should have grown like Pinocchio’s and Zoomed right through the computer screen. For the truth is the Blueshirts did merely a few good things and if they are only a little better in Monday’s Game 2 that also begins at noon, they are likely to be staring at elimination in Game 3.
Mika Zibanejad was a horse through 25:32 of ice time while scoring the goal to bring the team within 2-1 late in the second. But Artemi Panarin was stifled, Chris Kreider was muzzled, Ryan Strome was blanketed, Adam Fox was suppressed and Tony DeAngelo unimpressive. The kids had issues, but so did the veterans. The team generated essentially nothing on the rush, rarely had the puck below the hash marks, needed way too many tries to clear the zone and were miserable on the power play, going 0-for-7 in 12:08 with the man-advantage.
“I feel they outcompeted us, really,” Zibanejad said. “We didn’t really click. We weren’t able to get on the same page.”
There is serious adversity facing the Rangers. Not only was their presumptive No. 1 unable to go in nets, Jesper Fast, injured on a Brady Skjei neutral zone bomb of an open-ice hit just 32 seconds into the match, is likely down for a spell. Without the suspended Brendan Lemieux for Game 2, the Blueshirts will have to dip into the taxi squad for a replacement.
Of course, it was just 3-2, and Lundqvist was surely a reason that it wasn’t worse. Still, he knows he may not play the next one.
“I just try to enjoy the moment,” said the Swede. “I take every start as an opportunity to play the game, enjoy the game and try to help the team. Physically, technically, mentally, I’m in a good place.
“I felt like I was moving well. There are a couple of things I need to adjust a little for the next game, if I get an opportunity to play. We’ll see.”
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