It was just two nights ago that Henrik Lundqvist was experiencing a very weird sensation in his tremendous career to this point; watching a Rangers playoff game from the bench. He was slow, he looked lost; he was just plain bad in Game 5 as he gave up four goals in less than two periods before being yanked.
When he was pulled the Rangers came storming back, scoring three goals almost immediately while he was on the bench -- a bit of a torturous microcosm for his Rangers career. People were wondering if the Rangers shouldn't then reinsert Lundqvist into what was now a tie game but coach Alain Vigneault resisted the temptation. While in the moment it was questionable, it was as sound of a decision as he's made in this, his first season with the Rangers.
As everybody will tell you, goaltenders are fickle, so hard to predict and notoriously streaky. Lundqvist has long been one of the very few goaltenders that is pretty much impervious to the topsy-turvy world of goaltending in the National Hockey League. He has been not only consistently good but consistently spectacular for a decade now.
One large part of that is his mind frame. The old stereotype is that goalies aren't just fickle but pure oddballs. Their mindsets are often as important as anything else and after he was pulled in Game 5, before that game was even over Lundqvist was already checking in to Game 6. He quickly forgot about his awful night and focused on the next when he would have to be the complete opposite of awful.
"I don't think I've been more determined to win a hockey game, you know?" Lundqvist said. "To put ourselves in a spot where we can play for the Cup is extremely special. I've been here for nine years and this is my first year in the Final. So I'm extremely proud of how we did it, to be in this spot."
It's rather fitting that in this season, the 20th anniversary of the Rangers' last trip to the Stanley Cup Final (which they won) led by Mark Messier, that the Rangers' most recognizable hockey star since the Mess was leading them back there. And just as they did for much of his time in New York, his team left him with very little room for error against the Canadiens in Game 6.
By little, we mean they left him no room for error. Although it isn't indicative of how well they played in this game, the Rangers only gave Lundqvist one goal in support and he made it stand up, just as he has been doing for years, stopping all 18 Habs shots for the shutout.
Lundqvist, now 32, is no spring chicken. That's not to say he's nearing the end of his career yet -- the Rangers just signed him to a monster new deal this season, so they obviously don't think so -- but they were getting perilously close to running out of Henrik's prime years with not even a trip to the Final to show for it. They're getting that trip in on time.
The story was getting a bit tiresome, really, for Rangers fans. For years they thought they had the team to get to the end game as Glen Sather kept adding the next piece to the puzzle, but it wasn't happening under a former Cup-winning coach in John Tortorella. Now, exactly one year after he was fired, the Rangers have achieved the first half of their goal for each of the past five seasons -- or 20, really.
Vigneault's job as the Rangers' coach only gets illuminated by that coincidental note and certainly he deserves some credit for the job he has done. But it's a lot easier to look like a good coach when you have a man like the King ruling the nets.
There's no denying the Rangers are a good team. You don't win your conference if you're not, but Lundqvist more than any other reason is why the Rangers not only got here but might actually stand a chance against whichever behemoth emerges from the Western Conference.
If we've learned anything from Lundqvist in this postseason it's that he saves his best for the biggest moments. While Game 6 was not a do-or-die for the Rangers it might have felt like one; nobody wants to have to play a Game 7 in Montreal. Add his shutout -- the ninth of his postseason career -- to his performance in similar games this postseason and you almost get the distinct impression that you can't ever put away the Rangers. He seemingly won't allow it.
Though that wasn't always the case. There was a time a few years ago when Lundqvist in the postseason was not the same netminder as he was in the regular season and the Rangers' lack of offense caught up to them in a hurry in those circumstances. Believe it or not, there was a narrative a few years ago that Lundqvist was a playoff failure, that he couldn't do it in the postseason. That narrative was ripped up a few years ago by anybody who was watching but getting the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final with a shutout in the clinching game should forever remove anybody's doubt.
It has been 20 years since the Rangers were in the Stanley Cup Final, a wait that's felt like longer, exacerbated in a way few cities can do it like New York. Lundqvist has been there for almost half of that time, playing for some Rangers teams that were always coming up short of expectations.
Not anymore. Like Game 6, Lundqvist wouldn't allow another shot to get by.