NEW YORK -- Now that Game 7 is at hand, the memory of how the Tampa Bay Lightning torched the New York Rangers for 11 goals in the second and third games of this wildly entertaining and thrillingly unpredictable Eastern Conference finals series feels as if it happened a lifetime ago, not just last week.
The same goes for Henrik Lundqvist’s public wobble after Game 3, during which the all-world Rangers goaltender conceded he was searching for ways to solve the unusual success that Tampa’s NHL-best offense had against him -- a rare glimmer of self-doubt from the Rangers’ best player.
That’s because Lundqvist rebounded in Game 4, and the Rangers returned the favor by trouncing the Lightning in two of the past three games to force a Game 7 on Friday at Madison Square Garden.
By Thursday, the message again coming out of the Rangers’ locker room was: In Hank We Trust.
The biggest reason the Rangers believe they can hold off the Lightning in the series decider and move onto their second Stanley Cup finals in two seasons is they have Lundqvist. And the Lightning do not.
It’s a hard theory to pick apart. Lundqvist is 15-3 with a 1.47 goals against average in elimination games dating back to 2012. And the Rangers are 7-0 in Game 7s at home.
But Lundqvist’s run of success is even harder to explain.
Lundqvist is as smart and accommodating as athletes come, and he tried his best after Thursday’s practice to explain his success in the clutch. So did his Rangers teammates.
But frankly, the answers they threw out -- their usual ones, about how hard Lundqvist works, how hotly competitive he is, and how comprehensively he prepares for and visualizes each game -- still left you wanting to know more.
And that’s where a lengthy but fascinating breakdown by Stephen Valiquette, Lundqvist’s former teammate with the Rangers and now a hockey analyst, comes in.
Valiquette, speaking on "The Michael Kay Show" on ESPN radio 98.7 in New York admitted, “I’ve been trying to put my finger” on what separates Lundqvist. And the observations he went on to lay out were hands down the best explanation anyone has given yet to describe the ineffable things that Lundqvist consistently summons and lesser goalies can’t.
“He is pretty normal on East-West plays and shots that he has with half of a second of clear sight before the puck releases from the shooter’s stick,” Valiquette began. “All the things that most goalies do really well, he does really well. Right around the league average.
“But he’s abnormal in two areas. The broken plays. And the screens.”
By broken plays, Valiquette generally means when Lundqvist is expecting the puck to come at him on one path and then, for whatever reason -- because of a deflection, because of a second shot off a rebound or loose puck, or just because this is hockey, damn it -- things often crazily stray from the script.
Even in such cases, Lundqvist seems to anticipate such things, and he’s athletic enough to make an extreme adjustment to make a save, often though his body is already moving the other way.
“He’s so competitive, he fights harder for sightlines when he’s being screened than anybody I know, [and] his competitiveness really allows him to make saves that nobody else can make,” Valiquette said.
“During the regular season, [shots on broken plays] go in one out of two times. But Hank, in the postseason, has only given up goals six times on 43 on these types of sequences. Now across the league, that usually translates to 21 goals. And he’s given up six.”
That’s impressive, all right. But what’s just as amazing is another stat Valiquette threw out about Lundqvist’s ability to overcome screens. After all, an old axiom in hockey is, even a great goalie can’t stop what he can’t see.
Or can he?
“He’s had 40 screens [on shots faced] in the postseason. He’s given up one [goal],” Valiquette said.
“If you understand goaltending a little, [sometimes] you see the puck the first two feet of the puck releasing from a shooter’s stick, and then you don’t see it at all, because a screen shows up. But [Lundqvist] has the ability to build that flight path the rest of the way and then connect his hands to it. He doesn’t just lock up. A lot of goalies just lock up, drop into a blocking position and hope it hits them, playing the percentages. He doesn’t do that. He comes out of form, and he makes reflex and reaction saves on plays -- again, where he’s screened.”
Combine it all, Valiquette said, and “he’s superhuman to me.”
Right. But what has made the Rangers-Lightning games so fascinating in the regular season and the playoffs is that Tampa Bay seems able to throw a little Kryptonite at Lundqvist. The Lightning often have made him, and the Rangers’ defense, look ordinary while going 6-3 against the Rangers this season. Tampa Bay, with 15 players under 25 years old, is a young and confident group.
But this is Game 7. Lundqvist is Big-Game Hank. The more the pressure, the greater the stakes and the less the margin for error, the better this goalie seems to be.
Lundqvist has succeeded so often in such situations, a reporter asked him Thursday how he became so “comfortable.” And Lundqvist stopped unraveling the tape on his skates and corrected him:
“I didn’t say I was ‘comfortable.’”
The rest of the Rangers feel confident knowing he’s there.
The fact that Lundqvist is 33 now, that he just weathered a regular season that included two months missed with a vascular injury, that he has won nearly everything else -- Olympic gold medals for Sweden, the Vezina Trophy, a clear path to the Hall of Fame, everything but the Stanley Cup -- has to only add to his incinerating drive.
Similarly, it’s no accident the Rangers have T-shirts this postseason that read, “Change the ending.” None of them can be sure they’ll get this close to the Cup again.
Lundqvist himself never talks about his legacy feeling incomplete; just that his NHL career has been a long haul since he was a seventh-round draft pick, all right, and a Cup would be important to win.
“He’s our best player,” Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said Thursday, “and when we get in a situation like this, we know he’s going to be there.”
“I think he’s the best in the world,” added center Derek Stepan.
“Experience in these Game 7s does count,” said Dominic Moore, Lundqvist’s closest friend on the team.
In Hank They Trust.