Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Lundsanity or Linsanity: Henrik's still top dog

Henrik Lundqvist makes one of 42 saves for his league best seventh shutout in Boston.

The two biggest sports trends on Twitter involve MSG teams. It took less than a week for #Linsanity to be born on newest Knick folk hero Jeremy Lin. The kind of rags to riches story that would make Roy Hobbs proud. The Natural is one of my favorite sports movies, depicting Robert Redford's Hobbs character who once is a hotshot can't miss teenager who strikes out The Babe on three pitches and then disappears from baseball until basically my age. The rest is a poetic fairy tale made for Hollywood.

What does this have to do with Lin or nightly Ranger hero Henrik Lundqvist? Let's just say both were long shots. Of course, Lin more so due to starring at Harvard and having two NBA teams waive him and then needing Knick injuries and point guard ineptitude for Mike D'Antoni to finally give him a shot. Almost similar to Wilfred Brimley's Pop Fisher character, who sees Hobbs put on a show in batting practice and then pinch hits him for Bump Bailey, who eventually dies crashing into a wall. A little far fetched? Sure. Thankfully, nobody dies in these stories.

It's easy to forget Lundqvist was a seventh round draft pick given his lofty status among NHL netminders. But the truth is the Swedish King every Ranger fan loves and other female observers drool over was just as long a shot as Lin. Not too long ago, the Blueshirts were a laughingstock that missed the playoffs seven years in a row. Two things changed. The work stoppage altered Glen Sather's organizational plan and Henrik Lundqvist happened by surprise. Sometimes, luck is all that's required for a team to turn it around. If not for Dan Blackburn's career ending freak injury during weight training, Henke never sees the light of day and probably stays put in Sweden starring for Frolunda.

Instead, the afterthought selected so late back in 2000 became a star back home- developing into a legit prospect fans like myself started following and onto the Rangers' radar. It really is that simple. When Slats brought Kevin Weekes in for '05-06, everyone knew he wasn't going to be a full-time starter. However, Weekes had the NHL pedigree and enough professionalism to help ease Lundqvist in once it became apparent he could hold his own. If only some of our fans had given the admirable present NHL Network analyst the same respect. Based on tweets with him, he really is a classy guy who's one of the best.

You can't give all the credit to Hank without mentioning Jaromir Jagr, who happens to be celebrating his 40th birthday today and amazingly is still a star you don't want to see this Spring. It was No.68's record-breaking season of 54 goals and 69 assists for club bests in goals and points (122), that backed up a guarantee, putting our team back in the playoffs. Somehow, he was robbed of the Hart which went to Joe Thornton in half a year with San Jose. It would be like blind squirrels denying Lundqvist of the Vezina this special season. Here we are seven years later with that same seventh round pick standing on his head, leading a first place club to the East's best record.

The incredible numbers speak for themselves. Fresh off last night's virtuoso performance in which he denied all 42 Boston shots for his league-leading seventh shutout, which ironically was his 42nd career blanking, Lundqvist is first in save percentage (.941), second in goals-against-average (1.77) and fourth in victories (27) in fewer games played (42). The only goalie to win at least 30 at the start of a career six consecutive seasons is three shy of extending that NHL record to seven and there's nothing lucky about it. He is a model of consistency similar to the opposite No.30 across the Hudson who's tops all-time in wins and shutouts. Could Henrik one day chase down Martin Brodeur? If he continues to shut teams out (18 since '10-11) with regularity, perhaps an unbreakable record could one day fall. It still is a long shot given like Dominik Hasek, he started his NHL career late. He'll turn 30 on March 2 with one goal in mind. The Stanley Cup.

No wonder following yesterday, Garden faithful referred to him as #Lundsanity. Kinda sad that it originated from Knick fans who haven't been this caught up in the play of a guard since Walt Frazier. It'll take Lin a lot longer to be mentioned with an all-time great or even Lundqvist. He can either go the route of Kurt Warner or Kevin Maas. The same was said once of King Henrik, who despite three Vezina nominations, Olympic gold and All-Star recognition, has only won two playoff series. Part of it was the team, which wasn't built to go far. However, with key addition Brad Richards and the continued development of legitimately the area's best captain Ryan Callahan, the Rangers lead the East with 79 points. In fact, they've only lost 13 times in regulation- boasting a league best 37-13-5 mark. One less point than Detroit, who's played three more games.

With John Tortorella running the asylum, he's kept them focused to the point where seven times, they have bounced back from a loss. A great characteristic to boast this postseason. Amazingly, they've done most of it without Marc Staal, who still looks shaky. A credit to overlooked Norris candidate Dan Girardi and super sophomore Ryan McDonagh. When you look amongst the stat leaders, you won't find anyone in the league's top 10 scoring race. There isn't a Kovalchuk or Tavares on this roster but Marian Gaborik has answered every question leading them with 27 goals and 49 points while getting a bunch in the third period when most Ranger games are decided. His six game-winners are tied for second with Captain Cally (6), trailing only Richards' seven. While most teams rely on one big name like the Pens with Hart frontrunner Evgeni Malkin, the Rangers possess balance that delivers. You never know who'll play the hero. It was Brandon Prust with a shorthanded goal in Sunday's 3-2 win over the Caps for his first goal in 49 games. McDonagh also scored in back-to-back W's including the club's second triumph over the defending champs. They still have two left including a pivotal match on April Fool's Day.

By now, nobody is fooled anymore by what these Blueshirts are accomplishing. Despite a solid contribution from Martin Biron (10 W, 2.02, .920, 2 SHO), it still hinges on Lundqvist, who deserves MVP consideration. More often than not, they win on the back of the best goalie this season. As was on display at TD Garden Tuesday, the Rangers relied on their franchise netminder to bail them out. They were outshot 42-20 by the Bruins, who are the standard. The club was opportunistic doing damage on a suddenly hot power play thanks to some great passing from Mike Del Zotto to Callahan, who now has six goals over his last four. McDonagh also tallied late in the first which really hurt the B's chances. Boston did much right, attacking and generating quality chances but couldn't beat King Henrik. One ridiculous sequence saw Milan Lucic thought he'd scored on a rebound only to see the puck bounce around before a Zdeno Chara blast was denied by a backwards Lundqvist, who somehow got it with the back of his mask. If that isn't a defining moment of how it's gone, we're rendered speechless.

All of this is great on paper because that's all it is if they don't go far this Spring. It's been 15 years since the Rangers won two rounds and made the Conference Finals. Given the gritty, physical style they play helping Lundqvist out, they have a real chance this season. But as Tortorella reminded them along with Brandon Dubinsky in a tweet, they can't expect to succeed like last night. The playoffs are a different animal. Everyone that's been here knows it, which is why there's plenty of incentive.

If they are to finally shed the label of early round fodder, the Rangers need Dubinsky and streaky Russian Artem Anisimov to step up. Both are going well and have playoff experience. It can't just be the Henrik Show and Gabby, Cally, Richie, D-Step and Carl Hagelin. It takes a lot to win 16 games in the second season. In case you hadn't noticed, the Blueshirts aren't the most talented bunch. But they are a complete T-E-A-M that wins the battles, sacrifices their bodies and gets dirty. That should make them a tough out along with the hot goalie who can do no wrong in his seventh year.

One memorable time, it was Mike Richter who made every clutch save. That team also had the best leader in sports along with a Norris winner, 50-goalscorer and one of the greatest passing defensemen to play in this era. They too played with a lot of determination. Oh. And had a fiery coach similar to Tortorella. Of course, we're referring to '94, which Ranger supporters have begun envisioning. But before you get too far ahead, there's still 27 games left including tomorrow's match against former Cup champ Chicago. Yes, they have lost nine straight but still are fully capable of coming into The Garden and ending that streak.

The Rangers will do what has become routine. Grind and finish every check. If they don't, they'll hear about it from the coach who's never hesitant to tell you what he's thinking. There's still so much time left and plenty more to go. It doesn't get easier. Only tougher. At least the Eastern leaders know they have a decided edge in net. #Lundsanity

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