There may be no player in this first-round matchup between the Capitals and Rangers with the ability swing the outcome of a game than goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
Long considered one of the NHL’s elite netminders and a frustrating puzzle for opponents to solve, Lundqvist was named one of three finalists for the Vezina Trophy on Wednesday along with Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky and San Jose’s Antti Niemi.
This nod by the league’s general managers, who vote for the Vezina, is the fifth time the 31-year-old has been one of the three top vote-getters for the award.
“It means a lot. I’m really proud to be in that category and it’s been an interesting year and a different year,” Lundqvist said. “I always try to push myself as much as possible. I want to be up there I want to be recognized as a good goalie and when people appreciate what you do it’s always a fun thing.”
Through the first three games of this Eastern Conference quarterfinal, Lundqvist has stopped 92 of the 99 shots he’s faced. In Game 2, which the Capitals won 1-0 in overtime, it was largely Lundqvist’s stellar 37-save performance that forced the contest into extra time as he stopped multiple high quality chances.
“He’s a top goalie and you can see how he play right now, especially in Game 2 when we have lots of chances on him,” Alex Ovechkin said Wednesday. “You just have to find lots of traffic, maybe find the rebound. It can’t be clear shot. It have to be like somebody stand in front of the net because if he gonna see the puck, he gonna save it.”
The Rangers have built their style of play and strategy out from Lundqvist. Their efforts to block shots and clog up shooting lanes limits the chances that Lundqvist faces, and they work to ensure he has a clean line of sight to most of the attempts that reach the net.
Lundqvist’s skill level, combined with the Rangers’ ability to insulate him from a significant amount of chances in most outings, makes for a multi-tiered challenge for opponents. Even if they manage to avoid the shot blockers and bodies that collapse around him, shooters must then beat one of the top goaltenders in the world.
Lundqvist also manages to give himself ample time to react to plays and unsuspected opportunities by playing deep in the crease, a luxury allowed by the way the Rangers protect him.
“I think he’s smart, he plays his angles well, he relies on his positioning. He doesn’t over-try. Pucks seem to hit him and when they do he absorbs them like a sponge,” Matt Hendricks said. “He plays kind of deep in his net. It’s tough to beat him with the back-door plays because he doesn’t have to travel long distance to try to cover that. And when you try to pick top corners he still seems to read the puck well, read your stick well and knows where you’re shooting.”
Coach Adam Oates and Troy Brouwer both acknowledged that given Lundqvist’s stingy nature, the Capitals expect to win a game in which they score three goals against him. That wasn’t the case in Game 3, when the Rangers captured a 4-3 win and Lundqvist finished with 28 saves.
“Goals are hard to come by. He was phenomenal again [in Game 3] making big saves and timely saves,” Brouwer said Tuesday. “Guys kept putting pucks on the net, kept getting good shots and he’s been there for the task. When we do score three goals we have to be able to get a win out of it. There’s not too many where you’re going to be able to get three or more goals by him. When we’re able to produce and score like that, we need to be able to win those games.”
But even when Lundqvist is stopping everything the Capitals throw at him, it’s important for them not to get discouraged or deviate from their game plan.
“You want to try and not let it affect them, because you start second-guessing yourself,” Oates said Wednesday. “But at the end of the day, you’re going to get some shots, going to get some chances. We have to be patient. He’s going to make some saves, you just keep playing.”