Capitals vs. Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist may be the key to the series


New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist celebrates a come-from-behind win over the Boston Bruins earlier this month. (RAY STUBBLEBINE/REUTERS)
April 12, 2011

There’s only one way the New York Rangers can beat the Washington Capitals. It’s Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers goalie who for the most part tormented Alex Ovechkin and his teammates in the regular season.

Lundqvist went 2-1 in three starts against the Capitals, posting a 1.34 goals against average and .955 save percentage.

In the teams’ first meeting, forwards Brooks Laich, Mike Knuble and Matt Hendricks scored for Washington in a 5-3 win. The first of Laich’s two goals came on a power-play tip-in, with one skate planted in the crease. Knuble scored as he raced to the net. Want to guess where Hendricks’s goal was scored from? Yep, right in front.

But the Capitals inexplicably deviated from that successful net-crashing strategy the next two times they faced Lundqvist. As a result, he stopped them 7-0 at Madison Square Garden and 6-0 at Verizon Center, turning away a combined 66 shots. Lundqvist finished the regular season with a league-leading 11 shutouts.

“It’s traffic,” Knuble said. “You need a lot of players around the net grabbing rebounds.”

Knuble wasn’t a member of the Capitals when Lundqvist stopped 141 of the first 149 shots he faced to stake the Rangers to a 3-1 series lead in a quarterfinal series in 2009. But the winger has faced Lundqvist enough to know that firing shots from the perimeter isn’t likely to beat New York’s three-time Vezina Trophy candidate.

Lundqvist is positionally sound, composed and seals off the bottom of the net better than any other goalie in the NHL. But he can’t stop what he can’t see.

“You’ve got to get in there, work hard and get the ugly goals,” Knuble said.

Knuble will in all likelihood need to lead the Capitals’ effort in that department. He also must continue to produce the way he finished the regular season, notching nine goals in the final 13 games, with all but two scored in high-traffic areas.

The Capitals also will want to make Lundqvist expend as much energy as possible. He’s got to be feeling the effects of appearing in 68 games in the regular season, including the final 26 contests. They weren’t easy games, physically or mentally, as the Rangers scrapped to make the playoffs. Of all the goalies in the postseason, in fact, only Montreal’s Carey Price played more. He played in 72 games.

One more thing you can be sure the Capitals have discussed in their preparation: Lundqvist is the Rangers’ only option in net. His backup, Chad Johnson, has played a mere 20 minutes since being called up from the Connecticut Whale to replace Martin Biron, who suffered a broken collarbone in practice on Feb. 28.

I’m not suggesting the Capitals are going to target Lundqvist. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if Hendricks drops by his crease once or twice for some small talk.

“Definitely, I want to get in front of him, do the best job I can screening him so he can’t see pucks,” Hendricks said as he carefully chose his words in an effort to avoid providing the Rangers with any bulletin board material before the series even beings. “Maybe say a few things to him.”

After all, Hendricks did manage to get Tampa Bay goalie Dwayne Roloson to loose his cool in February after repeatedly barreling into the crease. Roloson threw a number of blocker-hand punches at Hendricks, and the Capitals pulled away for a 5-2 triumph.

“I like to tell them I’m going to shoot five-hole, or I’m going to score a goal on them or something,” Hendricks said. “Try to get them to laugh a bit, maybe get their head out of the game. I try to have a little fun with it. If I can get him out of the game, I get him out of the game. If not, congratulations to him for being mentally tough.”

For the second straight year, the Capitals are set to face a goaltender capable of pulling off a first-round upset. This year year, though, there won’t be any excuses. Because unlike Jaroslav Halak of the Canadiens, Lundqvist won’t catch anyone by surprise.

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