Henrik Lundqvist is one of the NHL’s most marketable players, and you can see why: he’s got movie-idol looks, an ambassadorial demeanor and he plays goal for an Original Six team in one of hockey’s best markets. But sooner or later, he’s got to start playing like a true superstar when it matters most and impose his will on a series or two. And his New York Rangers would sure like that to take place when they take on the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 7 of their first round series Wednesday night in Manhattan.
If he beats the Flyers, Lundqvist earns the right to face Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference semifinal. But if he loses, the perception will grow that the Swede can’t be considered among the very best of the best on North American ice. That’s something former NHLer and current TSN analyst Jeff O’Neill touched on in THN’s Playoff Preview edition.
“The one x-factor is Lundqvist,” O’Neill said. “Can he get in that zone? When he plays in the Olympics, it’s like he turns into a brick wall, but he hasn’t been able to play the same way in the NHL playoffs so far. In fairness, (the Rangers’) lack of offense puts stress on him, but Lundqvist still has something to prove.”
The book on Lundqvist remains the same after the first six games he’s played in this year’s playoffs. In the Rangers’ three wins, he’s been stellar, posting save percentages of .933, .969 and .923. But at the same time, New York has had three one-game leads in this series and each time, Lundqvist has been unable to throw the team on his back and lead them to another victory to put the Flyers squarely on their heels.
In two of Philadelphia’s three wins, Lundqvist’s save percentage has been well below .900: in Game 2, he registered an .875 SP; and Tuesday night in Philly, he allowed four goals on 23 shots (.823 SP) and sat on the bench in the third period in favor of backup Cam Talbot. His overall .910 SP in this post-season is worse than that of Boston’s Tuukka Rask (.961), Philly’s Steve Mason (.939), Chicago’s Corey Crawford (.935), Wild rookie Darcy Kuemper (.934) and Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov (.923).
Sorry, Hank, but that’s not good enough.
As O’Neill noted, the Rangers haven’t provided Lundqvist with the type of goal support needed to win playoff games in recent years, so the blame for his inability to dominate at crunch time doesn’t all lie with him. And in Game 6 Tuesday, the Blueshirts were as ineffective, if not more than Lundqvist was.
Unfortunately, all people are going to remember if Lundqvist and the Rangers are eliminated Wednesday is they’ll have lost the past 13 playoff games they entered with a series lead. Lundqvist has been their goaltender in all of those games. He’s taken them as far as the conference final, but he’s only made it there once. And he’s now 32 years old, with a brand-new contract extension that kicks in next season and gives him a whopping $8.5 million salary cap hit each year through the 2020-21 campaign.
That $8.5 million cap hit will be the fifth-highest in the league in 2014-15 season. Only Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Corey Perry have a more expensive dollar amount attached to their name.
For that type of money, Lundqvist needs to do more.
Doing so Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden would be a great place to start. Otherwise, Lundqvist’s brand – at least, on this continent – will rightfully remain in the second echelon of elite NHL netminders.