"Henrik! Henrik! Henrik!" The chants were blasting through Madison Square Garden on a Thursday night in late March. The chant is as recognizable as one from the Bleacher Creatures. This one, however, usually starts up in Blue Heaven and makes its way down where a franchise's best goalie ever is currently at the top of his game.
Was Mike Richter overrated? It's possible. The guy was goalie of the 1993-94 Stanley Cup Champion team. He helped erase a fifty-four year curse in just his third season in the National Hockey League. Any objective Ranger fan will tell you, though, he was unreliable most of his career with the amount of soft goals allowed. Sure, he stopped Pavel Bure on a penalty shot. Two years before that he let Ron Francis blast one from the red line. That came in a series where the Rangers were up 2-1. Heck, they were winning 4-2 in the third when Richter let the puck get by him. That ultimately led to the Pittsburgh Penguins' second of two consecutive Cups. Yet Richter's number thirty-five jersey hangs high in the rafters at Madison Square Garden. Make room for another jersey. That one belongs to the Rangers' current goalie, Henrik Lundquist.
If there is any guy in the NHL underappreciated more than Lundquist please let me know. It is not like this is the first time he is making a name for himself on a big stage. Because of him, Sweden won the gold medal at the 2006 Olympics. With Olympic gold in his trophy case more hardware may be on the horizon for the Rangers' netminder.
Lundquist just blanked the Boston Bruins for his league-leading 11th shutout this season. Recently during an intermission on the Versus channel the genius analysts talked about Vezina contenders. The Vezina Trophy, by the way, is awarded to the NHL's best goalie every year. These guys named five goalies. None of those mentioned were King Henrik. Really?
The Rangers have played more games than any other team in the Eastern Conference and the 181 goals given up is the lowest total. They remain seventh in the conference so maybe their positioning is keeping voters from taking the King serious. You can argue that Lundquist be a finalist for the Hart Trophy and Vezina Trophy. The Hart is awarded to "the player believed to be most valuable to his team." Nobody in the NHL today is more valuable to his team than Lundquist is to the Rangers.
Lately there have been scary moments for Lundquist. All of the sudden opposing players are plowing into him, which probably has Ranger fans leading the league with near heart attacks. The team's top defenseman Marc Staal smacked Hank on the face with a rising slap shot. Thank goodness for goalie masks, eh? Maybe Staal can find an accurate slap shot someday. How can a guy that good have no accuracy?
There are just six games to go and every game's two points feel like playoff hockey. While the Buffalo Sabres hold onto eighth place and the Carolina Hurricanes try to break out of ninth, the Rangers are gunning for sixth. Maybe fifth. As the Blueshirts continue their push toward the playoffs, Lundquist will continue making noise. He has to. Without him playing the best hockey of his career, the Rangers would not be in the playoff picture.
Maybe this is the year Lundquist wins the Vezina Trophy. Or the Hart Trophy. He definitely deserves one of these awards. No Ranger goalie has ever won the Hart. Not since John Vanbiesbrook in 1985-96 has a Ranger won the Vezina. Before him there were just two other seasons where a Ranger was honored with the award. One came in 1971 and the other was in a more infamous year: 1940!
Ranger fans everywhere want to believe in this team. It is so easy to cheer for guys like Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, and Brandon Prust to name a few. These guys are grinders. They do their job every game and expect their consistent gameplan to produce wins. This is not a team full of stars. Their one true All-Star is Lundquist. With him playing this well and this late in the season, why would you not want to believe? Maybe this is the year. The NHL, more than any other professional sport, is calling for its Butler to hoist the Stanley Cup.