If you asked most players, scouts, coaches, fans, or really anyone who follows hockey, who the New York Rangers’ most important player—the one guy they couldn’t survive without—was heading into this season, they’d likely reply, without hesitation “Henrik Lundqvist.” So what happens when one of the best goaltenders in the world turns in an extremely pedestrian first third of the season?
Nothing good, if you’re a New York Rangers fan.
It’s a point that’s been made over and over and over again, but remains just as true after each utterance: The New York Rangers, as they are currently constituted, are not a high scoring hockey team. When you combine a low-scoring team with an all-world goaltender that isn’t playing at an all-world level, it spells trouble, and Henrik Lundqvist, not unlike the players in front of him, has struggled.
Lundqvist is in the midst of an adjustment. The team in front of him plays a radically different style than it once did, and as a result, he’s seeing different types—and at times, more difficult—shots. Under John Tortorella, the Rangers packed it in defensively, and often spent the majority of the game in their own zone defending. Blueshirts players flung themselves in front of incoming pucks with gusto—or else faced the wrath of the coach—and generally kept the quality chances to a minimum.
Seemingly, switching to a style under Alain Vigneault that allows Lundqvist to get the occasional in-game breather would make things easier on King Henrik. The key word here is “seemingly.”
For goalies, it’s easier to stay focused—to be mentally sharp—when the play is always right in front of you. Analysts routinely throw around the cliché that a great player—take Alex Ovechkin or even Rick Nash as an example—needs the puck to “get into the game.” It’s the same with netminders. Long periods of inactivity make it more difficult to stay sharp.
In short, Lundqvist needs to change his mindset from thinking he has to keep his team in every game, to focusing on making key saves when he’s called upon.
For Lundqvist, it’s been a difficult adjustment to make so far, and as a result, the star tender seems frustrated and at times appears to be lacking his normal confidence. On multiple occasions this season he’s been caught back in his net as a shot wizzes by—which for Lundqvist, a goalie that already plays deeper than is the norm, has long been the easiest way to identify when he’s struggling. Then there’s been the multitude of shots he’s gotten a piece of, but not enough to keep out of the net—a rare occurrence in years past.
The good news is twofold: Lundqvist’s problems are undoubtedly mental and not a sign of any physical decline, and the Rangers have been subpar defensively, meaning if they clean up their play, it’ll go a long way to helping out their goaltender.
Ultimately, it’s on Lundqvist to find his way out of the deepest chasm of his professional career. Goaltender is a unique position in that it’s as mental as it is physical—just believing you’re impenetrable is half the battle. The King needs to regain his mental edge—and his throne—to prove his rise to stardom wasn’t merely the product of playing in a strong defensive system—because if he doesn’t, the Rangers could easily find themselves on the outside looking in come playoff time.
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