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The Raw Reality Of Henrik Lundqvist On These Rangers

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New Jersey Devils v New York Rangers Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

I honestly don’t know why I didn’t turn it off. I knew it was coming, knew deep down it had to be included in the video, saw the lead up to the moment and instantly became aware of what I was going to see. On April 1st, 2019, of all days, I watched Alec Martinez score the Stanley Cup winning goal in 2014 for the second time in my life. Seriously. Once live, once on a YouTube video of best OT playoff goals I came across on Twitter.

At the time, I thought that was the worst version of Henrik Lundqvist. The “sprawled out, face down, it’s over and there’s nothing I can do about it” transformed into him on his knees, dead-eyeing the camera that he didn’t know was focusing on him. Then it turned into the “head in his hands at the locker after the game, still crying, still hasn’t touched his food.” That was sad.

But even then there was a glimmer of hope. Next year. It will all be better next year. The kids and core will learn from this, they’ll be better. And they’ll be hungrier.

At the time we had no idea how disastrous those next few months would be. How each and every decision the Rangers made that summer would work in unison to rip away the foundational blocks of what made that team good enough to go to the Stanley Cup in the first place.

What we’re getting now, when it comes to Henrik Lundqvist, feels fundamentally worse. There is no “next year” to say anymore, because next year doesn’t bring us hope but another step closer to a time without Lundqvist. In what will be one of the biggest black stains on the Original Six organization’s history, the sad reality of Lundqvist retiring/leaving the team without a Stanley Cup to his name will be one of the worst. To let a generational goaltender ply his craft for a decade without the hardware is almost too much to believe. To have one of the best goalies to ever play the position not get a ring is a tragedy.

The man is Rangers to his core. The organization came to him as they started the rebuilding process a year and a half ago and asked him if he wanted out. They would find a nice landing spot for him — potentially forgoing better offers from elsewhere. They would give him his shot at the Cup even if it wasn’t on Broadway. They owed him that.

In return, he gave them something they didn’t deserve: Loyalty. He stayed, reportedly swayed by the years of watching legends come back to the Garden to rousing ovations, energized by the banners he plays underneath — not feeling the weight of them, but rather rising to their level. He saw what it meant to be a Ranger for life. He wanted that, even though he knew what the price would be to get there.

It’s been harder than he thought. A fiercely competitive man to the core, part of what shoveled the coal into the engine was demanding perfection and excellence.

After the Rangers’ loss to New Jersey — leaving Lundqvist at 18 wins on the year, and 449 in his career — he spoke as openly as I have ever seen, saying the following after the game (from Carp’s Athletic story — paywall):

“Yeah, well,” he said as he sighed and laughed at the same time, “it’s been a tough stretch, to be honest. But it makes sense. Georgie’s playing really well. He’s getting a lot of minutes now, and he deserves it. For me, every time you come in there, it’s a different feeling for sure. I’ve just got to work harder to get that comfortable feeling, that game feeling that you’re used to having when you play every second day, you’re in it. Now you feel a little off. But that’s the reality now. I’ve just got to adjust to that down the stretch here.

“Like I said, Georgie deserves every minute he’s getting now, the way he’s playing, finding ways to help the team to win, and I’m not. I always want to play, but like I said, it makes sense to give him more minutes now, for many reasons, to make him feel more and more comfortable out there. He deserves to play. So those two reasons are enough.”

Hank has ceded time to Alexandar Georgiev a few times this year, going so far as advocating he gets starts after fantastic games to David Quinn directly. Lundqvist is admitting he hasn’t been good enough, that he’s not in a good mental place, and that Georgiev should be playing over him. It’s raw open wound stuff that’s sadly true as well.

Lundqvist admitted to not being mentally prepared for a season like this, with the losses piling up both in the stat column and on him personally, and impacting his play. Even so, Lundqvist hasn’t been that bad, he just hasn’t been good enough to win. But to be fair, not a goalie in the league, or Hank at any age, would be able to stand tall in a situation like this.

That doesn’t excuse Lundqvist from his own shortcomings, which makes this all the more difficult. The people calling for his head are largely crabs. Lundqvist’s .908 SV% is only slightly below Georgiev’s .912, and Hank has nearly twice as many minutes in front of this murderer’s row of defensemen. Compare that to 33-year-old Jonathan Quick — the goalie who led the Los Angeles Kings to victory in the 2014 Cup Final — who has a .887 SV% and 3.41 GAA. He remains under contract with the Kings at a ticket of $5,800,000 for four more seasons.

To insinuate Georgiev wouldn’t eventually succumb to the madness comes from the same place where most of the Hank hate does: A place of flickering madness.

The days of the team being good enough for a fantastic Hank to erase their mistakes are gone. The days of the team being good enough for a perfect Hank to wipe away their errors is gone. In the deepest runs the Rangers made, Hank did all that he could; his team simply couldn’t score enough goals.

There is no outcome today or likely next year that will see that change. There is no reasonable outcome that will witness Lundqvist kiss the Cup on Garden ice or in the Canyon of Heroes. That reality crushes down now, grinding everything into a fine powder to be sifted through later. There is no happy ending here, just a reminder that you better have enjoyed the journey. You better have stopped every now and again to smell the flowers. You really should have marveled at his magic; or at the very least should still marvel while you still can. No matter what you choose to do — whether you chose to throw hate at the greatest player to ever don the uniform, or love him — know that we already know how this book ends in New York. We just haven’t lived it yet.

Lundqvist could, I am sure, at any time go to Jeff Gorton and ask for a move. Maybe this year becomes too much and he asks off the team, or maybe it’s the lingering knowledge that his greatness will always be questioned by the masses without a ring. Or maybe Lundqvist sticks it out, knowing what lies on the other side will be a banner to the rafters, another man never wearing the number 30 in Rangers’ blue, and a lifetime of roaring ovations every time he and his perfectly sculpted hair walk into the Garden during a game.

I think back to the Lundqvist on his knees with Martinez being engulfed by his teammates into the corner back in 2014. A moment I have seen accidentally through commercials more than once. Then I go back to what I never watched again until Monday: Lundqvist stares into the distance, looking but not really seeing, a thousand thoughts running through his head. Or perhaps none, and there is simply the din of noise that makes everything quiet. A moment where it’s you and only you, alone but in front of tens of thousands of people. At some point though, be it on the ice in that moment or more likely days or weeks later, there was always the hope of next year. Hope.

There is none of that today. Only the march of time, step by step, second by second, toward life without Henrik Lundqvist.

And we’re learning just how hard those steps are for him to take.