Wednesday night marked the return of Henrik Lundqvist.
You may not have noticed he was back, since he was never really gone. However, in the Rangers' first meeting with the Penguins this season, we saw three full periods of Lundqvist the King, Lundqvist the Invincible, Lundqvist the Don't Even Try It. It made me realize how long it's been since I thought while watching a game: "Relax. He's got this."
Optics are "the way in which a situation, event, or course of action is perceived by the public" (OED). In that sense, as in other ways, Lundqvist is the Rangers' most important player, since it's pretty clear that the fans, if not the team, take their cues from him. On Wednesday, he looked even-keeled and in control at all times, even when the defense left Phil Kessel on his doorstep like a package from Zappos. He shut out a surging team, and it he made it look easy. That's Lundqvist for you.
Or is it?
It hasn't always been that way, this year. Instead, it's been the kind of season in which any player could do something egregiously stupid at any time. That's Rangers hockey; the team has been doing egregiously stupid things for years now, and Lundqvist's magic has almost always bailed them out. I asked Clare Austin of InGoal magazine (@puckologist) to describe what that magic entails.
"You already know how deep in the net he plays, and that it takes incredible patience and reaction speed. A lot of people think that the way Lundqvist plays is the ideal to which all goalies should aspire. But it's impossible to duplicate this style. It requires a particular set of talents to play that way, and that set is rare. Goalies do play deeper in the net than when he started, and that's partly because he has had such success doing it.
And a lot of people think of it as ultra conservative because he's so far back, but that's actually an ultra-high-risk way to play. He gives himself longer to see the puck but less time to react to it and by staying back, he allows shooters more visual space to aim at. It's extremely risky if your reactions are even a hair slower than his.
So goalies can try to imitate him, but most will fail, because only Henrik Lundqvist can do what Henrik Lundqvist does."
This fall, Lundqvist was doing what he does with a vengeance. Before November 25, he had a save percentage of .946 and a GAA of 1.75. Even acknowledging the flimsiness of those statistics, it was pretty clear he was playing out of his head. The team's PDO was stratospheric, guaranteed to fall to earth.
And then, right before Thanksgiving, they played the Habs, and Rangers fans suddenly realized how bad things could get if Hank wasn't Hanking. That was the beginning of a nightmarish streak in which Lundqvist got the hook three times: November 25th against the Habs, December 20th against the Capitals, and December 28th against the Predators. He also threw things, broke sticks and screamed at his defense. Basically, he acted like a goalie. For Rangers fans, however, this sort of extended meltdown was akin to watching Dad chug a handle of Jack and set the garage on fire.
That's where optics come in. Lundqvist isn't just an elite goalie. He is the face of the franchise, and his excellence is dangerously integral to the team's play, as well as its conception of itself. It's not news that the quality of his play makes up for deficiencies elsewhere. It was new, however, to realize that without Hank on his game the team was almost unwatchable, because the Rangers were utterly unequipped to compensate.
Is it really that unusual to require your netminder to, well, mind the net? After all, November 25th was also the last time Carey Price played, and the Habs have plummeted without him. However, there's a difference between having your starting goalie out completely, and having him there, but less dependable as time goes by. And for Lundqvist, the Cup Clock is ticking.
Austin agrees that time is a factor. "Yes, age is going to matter. Possibly it already does. The butterfly and everything that goes along with it are incredibly hard on the body and no one has played more games than Lundqvist in the past decade. Wear and tear can grind a goalie's body down. I wouldn't speculate that this is his last chance because there are things you can do to mitigate aging, and some players have played into their 40s. But it would be reasonable to see his numbers start to slip over the coming years."
One thing the Rangers could do to add a few years to Lundqvist's life is stop leaving him alone with the best sticks in the league. I can't help wondering what he thinks about when an opponent is crowding his crease and the D is picking daisies. Does he slash? Snarl? Make conversation? Whenever this happens - and it happens often, especially on the penalty kill, or if the Super Shutdown Duo of 18 and 5 are out - I can't help but think of this moment from Bull Durham.
Do I really believe that Hank would let one go by just to prove a point? No. Still, the Bull Durham connection works, not only because Susan Sarandon is a fan of both teams, but also because Lundqvist has so many times been cast as the Rangers' Crash Davis: a handsome savior surrounded by less-talented rubes, the guy who turns the team around and makes it all look easy. The nightmare is that his story will end the same way - not in the minors, of course, but with Lundqvist reduced to the aging enabler of the younger guys' glory.
There are a lot of ifs in the air for the Rangers right now, primarily the health of Rick Nash and Ryan McDonagh and the status of Keith Yandle. As of Wednesday night however, it seems safe to say that Lundqvist isn't one of them. He's "re-become himself," to use Alain Vigneault's bizarre phrase, and if he's on his game there's no telling how far they can go. Do they look like serious contenders right now, compared to the Caps? Not even close. But those who wonder if the team should just let the wheels come off and go for the rebuild have to remember: that scenario most likely means No Cup For Lundqvist. I'm not sure that's a world I want to live in.