The date is October 17th, 2005.
Imagine, if you can, a world where Henrik Lundqvist – the single greatest goaltender in New York Rangers history and potentially the greatest player in organizational history – is not a household name. Imagine a world where Lundqvist is the young usurper, violently pushing acclaimed veteran Kevin Weekes for the starting role. Imagine a world where Lundqvist’s name wasn’t locked in between the pipes.
In that world (which I assure you existed at one point in time), Lundqvist is slowly making a name for himself by the middle of October. And on October 17th, 2005 he truly seemed to arrive.
Remember, this was a time before social media took over. Lundqvist was a guy who probably had his name in the paper once or twice under the “guys who might show up in North America sometime soon.” This was before true blogs, before people actually were able to scout overseas without ever leaving their homes. Just take a look at the work Alex Nunn and Adam Herman do on European prospects. It’s insane. Back then those resources didn’t exist, and we were working off word of mouth. Today, Lundqvist would have been a household name before he so much as came to a camp – but that wasn’t the case in 2005, so his ascent into stardom wasn’t foretold or expected.
I tell you all of this because that 4-0 victory over the Florida Panthers in 2005 was his true coming out party – at least for me. Not only was did Lundqvist’s shutout mark the first time a New York Rangers rookie goaltender recorded a shutout since John Vanbiesbrouck, but it was a big win for a team that had missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons prior.
That season included a number of milestones; Jaromir Jagr would go on to break Adam Graves’ goals record with a 54-69-123 season, the Rangers would make the playoffs, effectively ending the dark years (although that series sucked, and Tom Renney panicked when he benched Hank in Game 2), and the European Connection of Michael Nylander and Martin Straka was getting started. It was a great time to be a Rangers fan.
But the most important part of it all was Lundqvist. By Halloween, he had taken over the starting role and we saw him developing into one of the biggest stars in New York.
Here’s how far back that game goes: there’s no highlights of it. I can’t find any on YouTube or on the NHL Vault that that taken down for some reason. With or without highlights though, this shutout isn’t about a singular game-moment, but about what it signified in Rangers’ history.
For me, sitting on my couch on Long Island – totally unaware that the Rangers were allowed to have nice things because for the past seven years of my coherent sports life the Rangers failed me at every turn and then the NHL decided to cancel an entire season – that was the moment I realized I was watching something special.
I have always had a soft spot for goaltenders. Mike Richter is still a personal favorite of mine. When I was a kid I used to throw rubber balls against the wall in my foam hockey pads and guard a “net” that was actually the space between the banister of the stairs and the wall. During those Game 7 Stanley Cup Final moments I was Richter; although I wasn’t nearly as athletic, I made up for it with a viciously quick glove hand.
It’s the beauty of a moment that you don’t know is an actual starting point. There’s hope, sure, but it’s the unknown – it’s what makes sports so amazing.
Of all my Lundqvist memories, this one isn’t my favorite. He’s a man who has done the most herculean things that defy all types of explanation or understanding. He has preformed in such strenuous environments, lifted the team above anything of expectation, and done things that have left me glued to my seat, pulled me from my seat, and nearly everything in between.
While this moment might not have been as beautiful, it might be one of the most important moments. Not only did this game motivate Renney’s decision to move Lundqvist to the head of the goaltending depth chart, but it kicked off a butterfly effect that saw potentially the greatest player in the organization’s history kick the door down to his throne room and start decorating it.