Hey NYR, Don’t “Eli” Hank!
This week marked the end of an era in New York sports. An era of a champion. An era of someone who was everything this city wanted. An era of a superstar team player. An era of a player that never quit on his team or pointed fingers. Since 2004, Eli Manning was exactly what this city craves; a star powered name that was humble enough to be one of the guys. This week, the Giants elected to discard him like trash…or if he was a Jet. Now there stands only one player in New York sports who fits that mold. That’s Henrik Lundqvist.
Since the day Hank showed up in NYC in 2005, he showed he was something special. Unlike the Giants, who floundered briefly and traded up to get Eli Manning, the Rangers had a revolving door of goaltenders that couldn’t keep the job since Mike Richter suffered his career ending injury. Even years prior, the Blueshirts couldn’t find a suitable fill-in for Richter when he suffered two knee injuries.
There was Kirk McLean, Guy Hebert and the “heir-apparent” Dan Cloutier. The latter didn’t dazzle fans with his pads as much as they remember him beating up Tommy Salo in a late season thrashing by the rival Islanders. Cloutier was later moved to Tampa Bay and put up a weak 9-30-3 record. He’d eventually land in Vancouver and win a couple division titles, but Cloutier wasn’t enough to supplant the Rangers winningest goaltender. As Richter battled injuries there were many more to take the crease. Milan Hnilicka, Jean-Franciois Labbe, Vitali Yeremeyev, Jason LaBarbera, Johan Holmqvist, Dan Blackburn before acquiring Mike Dunham in 2002 to loosely stabilize the crease. However, the Rangers would still add Jussi Markkanen, Jamie McLennon and MSG’s Steve Valiquette in 2004. They signed veteran goalie Kevin Weekes and drafted Al Montoya to become the franchise goalie in 2004.
A funny thing happened in 2005. Henrik Lundqvist came over to a franchise looking for stability. After falling 3-2 to the Devils in Jersey, Lundqvist made an impression that lasts till this day. He finished 30-12-9 with a 2.24 Goals Against Average and a .922 save percentage; good for third in the Vezina Trophy race behind Miikka Kiprusoff and Martin Brodeur. Hank would also finish fourth in the Calder race behind Dion Phaneuf, the “chosen one” Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.
It’s a rookie class that you’d have to look long and hard to find it’s equal. Since, the Blueshirts could back on 30 wins a season (which was 5 less then the total wins of Mike Dunham as a Ranger), an all star representative, a playoff appearance every season-but-one and a 2012 Vezina Trophy win. Arguably, Hank should have taken home the 2012 Hart Trophy too. There were heartbreaks along the way. OT eliminating losses to the Penguins in 2008 and the Devils in 2012 combined with the 3-1 choke in 2009 to the Capitals. Every season ended with Hank taking accountability.
Then Came 2013 and a New Coach
Alain Vigneault came to town with a new system. A contract extension was looming and the Rangers started in one of the worst months in franchise history. Lundqvist would have his doubters come out like the Salem Witch trials.
“Play Cam Talbot!”, fans would scream hammering their keyboards on social media. “Hank is done!” Despite what the keyboard commandos thought and a brief time off before Christmas, Lundqvist regained his job as the calendar turned to 2014. His dedication and hard work erased a GAA that was well-over 3 to finish 2.36. He won Silver in the Sochi Olympics and was poised to finish his NYR season. Boy did he ever!
Lundqvist backstopped the Blueshirts past Philly before winning the franchise’s first series vs the Penguins (coming back from a 3-1 deficit) and sealing a Stanley Cup Finals berth with a shutout vs the Canadiens. Alas 2014’s season would end with a heartbroken Lundqvist laying facedown on the ice after Alex Martinez ended the Blueshirts Stanley Cup dream. It became another season where Lundqvist had to answer questions. Another time he felt he could have done more.
2015 brought optimism and a challenge. Despite the Rangers competing with the league’s juggernauts for the top record. Lundqvist took a shot to the neck vs Carolina and was sidelined with a blood clot for nearly two months. Enter Cam Talbot again for the Rangers, who endured a couple shaky early starts before solidifying he could be an NHL goaltender. He’d even earn a Vezina Trophy vote at year’s end.
However, what to do with Lundqvist? With the franchise goalie on the mend, the Rangers were presented quite a conundrum. Hank answered the call. The goalie took back the crease and won 4 one goal games to dispatch the Penguins again. He turned himself into a wall again to lead NYR on their second 3-1 series comeback in two years as he outlasted the vaunted Capitals offense. Alas another season where Hank was left answering questions in the end after a 2-0 Game 7 loss to Tampa.
In the years since, Talbot was moved to Edmonton. Antii Raanta came and was traded and questions rose “Did the Rangers keep the Right Goalie?” Of course Hank’s NTC would prevent any move, but ridiculous statements like “why not ask him to waive it” usually followed in idiotic rants in blogs. Lundqvist has done his best especially when the defense wasn’t perfect. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when he would tell you himself he could be better. Look at last January. However, like a true professional Hank worked his way back into form and stole the series away from reigning “Best Goalie” Carey Price in 2017. He made many highlight film saves vs the Senators, but is only remembered for a couple late goals and the OT winners that followed. Another season that ended with questions at his locker.
While slow out of the gate this season, Hank has shown why he is still the franchise on Broadway. While the fans look to Russia for the new prospect Igor Shestyorkin, he’s just another name that will hope to do a fraction of what Hank has already done.