GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- It seemed past due when Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist finally earned his first shutout of the season on Saturday -- the 44th of his career -- because long before the team’s 1-0 overtime win against the Islanders, their reigning Vezina Trophy Winner had been leading the way.
Lundqvist has allowed two goals or fewer in the last 12 of 13 games played. During that span he has posted an 8-3-2 record with a 1.66 goals against average and .941 save percentage.
With the Rangers fighting for the last playoff spot in the East, his stinginess in net has been critical.
“It’s no coincidence that we’re 5-1-1 and Henrik has been on top of his game,” coach John Tortorella said. “He’s been really good.”
It wasn’t a smooth start for Lundqvist, who surrendered a ghastly 12 goals over the first three games, but that could be said for a lot of people with the delayed start and compressed schedule that resulted from a lockout-shortened season.
Even Tortorella admitted that Lundqvist, commonly referred to as the “backbone” of the team, was “not the goalie that we know” when the season began.
“I thought the start was so-so, but after that I’ve been pretty happy,” Lundqvist said. "I’ve been playing the style I want to play. There are always games and goals where you think, ‘I could’ve done better,’ but overall, I feel like I reached a level where I feel comfortable.”
The Rangers, in 8th place with 46 points, control their own destiny heading into the penultimate week of the season. Realistically, they could probably move up as high as the sixth seed. Or they could miss completely.
Lundqvist said he can’t be bothered to scoreboard-watch as the standings shake out.
“I try not to think too much about where we are in the standings. It doesn’t help my game, really,” Lundqvist said. “I know it’s an important game every night; that’s enough for me.
“Having everything in your hands, obviously, is a good thing,” he continued. “It’s going to come down to the last couple of games for sure. We just have to continue working really hard in practice, focusing one everything in our game. Every little play can be the difference in making or missing the playoffs.”
In fact, because the standings are so tight, the Rangers have had to rely on Lundqvist more than they anticipated. Last season, he was afforded much more time -- 20 games -- to rest. Lundqvist has started all but five this season.
“When we’re dying on the way and struggling to get in, you have to make some decisions that way,” Tortorella said. “Is Hank going to play all these games [left]? Probably not. You go into the season thinking about keeping him fresh, but when you struggle and are as inconsistent as we are you need to use him and some spots where maybe you are gonna go with Marty. And that certainty isn’t a negative on Marty, but Hank is our number-one guy.”
As the team’s No.1, Lundqvist said he’s encouraged with the team’s play of late. The team’s confidence is rising, and the new trade deadline acquisitions have re-energized the club, he said. Plus, the group is playing with the requisite emotions of an important stretch run.
“You have to play with your heart,” Lundqvist said. “and we’ve been doing that a lot lately.”