NEW YORK -- Henrik Lundqvist had to be the difference in this series. He had to be Hank for the New York Rangers to advance to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1994. He had to shake any of the lingering doubt, any of the festering frustration from getting the hook in Game 5. He had to make sure the spotlight wasn’t stolen by the young kid with moxie across the ice.
Lundqvist didn’t have to work particularly hard for the 18-save shutout he recorded in the team’s determined and dominant 1-0 win against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference, but he left no glimmer of hope for a Habs team gasping its last, desperate breath.
When he was forced to channel his steely resolve into action, he delivered.
If there was any worry or concern that Lundqvist wasn’t tested early, wasn’t seeing a lot of pucks, wasn’t completely dialed in, those doubts ended in the second period. Those doubts should have been eliminated entirely when he made his most spectacular, awe-inspiring save of the season, spinning like a bulky ballerina, dropping his stick and denying the puck with a dramatic backhanded swat.
“It’s game-saving, for sure,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “He didn’t see a lot shots early on, you could’ve thought maybe he’d freeze up, but he was so focused and mentally sharp tonight, like we’re used to seeing.”
It was not the Lundqvist they saw in Game 5. That Lundqvist took a painfully long and deliberate skate off the Bell Centre ice in Game 5, after an uncharacteristically poor performance. He gave up four goals on 18 shots and was forced to watch his team succumb 7-4 to the Habs instead of closing out the series.
Forty-eight hours later, he was back to the Hank they know. The one whose steadying presence has been so critical to the team’s success that his teammates have run out of superlatives. They shake their head and try to devise new ways to describe his prowess. Especially in the face of pressure.
“Nothing surprises me with that guy,” said top-line center Derek Stepan. “Obviously I’m biased, [but] he’s the best goaltender in the world. He just competes. He competes like a -- I’m not going to say. I probably shouldn’t say. But he competes. He’s unbelievable, that guy.”
This, mind you, from a guy that returned to play in Game 5 just four days removed from surgery to repair his broken jaw.
Lundqvist has broken franchise records -- in all-time wins, playoff wins and shutouts -- and he added to a long list of career accomplishments Thursday. He recorded his 42nd career playoff win and ninth career postseason shutout (tying the legendary Mike Richter). He has allowed two goals or fewer in 15 of 20 games for the Rangers this spring.
He’s been through a bevy of ups and downs, too, especially this season, the toughest start of his career. And there have been low points even throughout this team’s uplifting playoff run as well. The 48 hours leading up to Thursday’s game were not enjoyable.
He wasn’t tested much in the actual game Thursday, but he was tested mentally in the days prior.
“It's been tough. You think a lot, and going into the playoffs, you talked about it is a roller-coaster mentally. You have so many highs. You have a few lows where you're questioning a lot of things, but then you just have to make up your mind. You can't have any excuses. You just have to go out there,” Lundqvist said. “I kept telling myself all day, 'Believe in what you're doing.' I've been in that spot before. It gets silly, you get pulled. You have a tough game, but you just have to stay confident.”
He remained confident even with the Habs spending little time in the Rangers end all game. The Blueshirts were remarkably stingy, so much so that they looked nothing like the hapless squad that abandoned all semblance of structure Tuesday night.
He seems confident, too, in what lies ahead for his team.
“Tonight, I don't think I've been more determined to win a hockey game, you know?” Lundqvist said. “To put ourselves in a spot where we can play for the Cup is extremely special."
It feels like this is the time for Lundqvist, for the team.
"I've been here for nine years and this is my first year in the Final," he said. "So I'm extremely proud of how we did it, to be in this spot."