Ice Guys Finish First

Wait, the New York Rangers are actually winning

All right, so the trope of the wacky goaltender may be outdated—"old wives' tales that have been passed on for years," according to backup goalie Kevin Weekes. Improvements in safety equipment and coaching "have contributed to that not being as true as perhaps it may have once been," though he acknowledges, "You have to prepare mentally . . . because you're ultimately accountable, so accountable, for the end result."

In any case, while Lundqvist is hardly twitching or talking to himself, he's not immune to the pressures of the position either. When he struggled in the 2006 playoffs, it was generally attributed to a lingering hip injury and possibly fatigue from the Olympics; it wasn't until this fall that he admitted he'd been suffering from migraines, which doctors said were brought on by grinding his teeth in his sleep.

"There is a lot of stress, emotions inside of you, pressure, expectations—all the guys have different ways to deal with it," he says now. "I'm pretty quiet before games. I don't say much, try to focus." (Weekes echoes that: Other players "can horse around before a game . . . just kind of feel their way into a game. We don't have that luxury, if you want to call it a luxury.")

Because the Rangers have struggled so often defensively, Lundqvist's play is particularly crucial. This year he's risen to the occasion with absolutely brilliant play over long stretches—and in shoot-outs, where he has stopped all 22 pucks sent his way—but kept things interesting with an occasional meltdown. On December 14 in Dallas he saved 43 of 45 shots, including a batch of unlikely highlight-reel plays, and almost single-handedly earned the Rangers a win they did not particularly deserve, but he couldn't repeat the performance against Toronto two nights later, allowing eight goals on just 24 shots over the course of two horrific periods.

"I think any team will tell you that great goaltending will cover up some issues," said Tom Renney after not receiving it for the second night in a row, "even the great teams." He paused and added, "We're not a great team. We want to be."

The fact that Lundqvist was left to suffer through the second period after a miserable first was no accident. He raised some eyebrows during a December 3 loss to the Islanders when, having allowed four first-period goals, he suggested that Renney remove him for Weekes; he was having "a really tough time" and hoped a switch would jump-start the team. This is by all accounts a common practice for European goaltenders, and it's perfectly reasonable—but American athletes are taught that you never ask out of a game, ever, even when dragging broken limbs and bleeding from the ears. Lundqvist, who had been innocently honest about the incident, was flummoxed when it sparked a mini-controversy; he said nothing after the first period of the Toronto game. Said Renney afterward, "I think this is a real gut-check time for our entire team—not just Henrik—and I thought that we had to show real singleness of purpose beyond the first period last night. Obviously you can view that as being unsuccessful, but only time will tell."

Renney is typically honest and precise when evaluating a recent game or a particular player's role in it, but he is fiercely vague when talking about his plans for the future; favorite phrases include "There's a reasonable chance," "I'll be thinking about it," and "I don't want to speculate aboot that." He is also, when talking about the more rough-and-tumble elements of the game, prone to euphemisms, as when he talks about placing another team under "physical duress." When he added Darius Kasparaitis—a tough defenseman, despite an amiable demeanor and a long, straight blond mane with bangs that make him resemble a Lithuanian Muppet—

to the lineup, he praised his ability to "bring a little sandpaper to the game." This is apparently hockey coach–speak for "He will smash opposing players' ribs against the boards if they so much as look at Jaromir Jagr cross-eyed—and if they object, punch them in the face."

The Rangers' main enforcers are Ryan Hollweg and Colton (no relation) Orr, and while neither will ever be accused of backing down from a fight, they will also never be mistaken for Mike Tyson; the spirit is willing, but the flesh, as likely as not, ends up flailing around with a jersey pulled over its head.

It should be said that neither Jagr nor Brendan Shanahan needs much help taking care of himself, but the Rangers can't afford to lose either of them to the penalty box this season. Jagr is, as of this writing, a close second in the NHL in points; Shanahan is one off the league lead in goals scored. Both celebrated their 600th goal earlier this season and lead all active players. Rangers fans may hate that Sather keeps throwing money at aging veterans instead of developing a core of homegrown players, but these particular aging veterans are, thus far, hard to argue with.

Shanahan doesn't look his age, which is 37—until you see a photo of his face in his rookie year and realize how many pucks, sticks, and fists have put their two cents in since 1987. He arrived in New York this fall and took seemingly all of two periods to become a fan favorite and a de facto team leader; Renney talks about him as if he were an extra assistant coach, and he's endeared himself to the media by speaking well and willingly. He also displays the kind of modesty you can get away with when everyone knows exactly how good you are, crediting his quick success to his teammates ("The guys have done a great job of making me feel comfortable") and coaches ("They've given me the opportunity to succeed"). He will admit, however, that leading the league in goals after 30 games probably didn't hurt either.

« Previous Page
Next Page »