There’s a reason why the New York Rangers faithful deferentially refer to goalie Henrik Lundqvist as King. The three-time Vezina Trophy finalist so often has impacted games with clutch saves — many of the spectacular variety — over his six years that he’s become virtual royalty on Broadway.
For nearly 54 minutes on Wednesday night at Verizon Center, Lundqvist’s dominion over the Washington Capitals was unshakable, and the Capitals appeared headed for another dispiriting loss because of a goaltender performing at his peak.
Then left wing Alex Ovechkin poked in the tying goal through a cluster of bodies late in the third period, and when right wing Alexander Semin one-timed a slap shot past Lundqvist with 1 minute 36 seconds remaining in overtime, the Rangers had almost everyone to blame except their goalie for losing Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, 2-1.
“He played a great game for us to give us a chance to win it in overtime, and we just weren’t able to do it,” said defenseman Marc Staal, who in large part was accountable for the decisive goal when his errant pass wound up on the stick of Washington’s Jason Arnott.
The veteran center quickly slid the puck onto Semin’s stick, and the game was over.
Lundqvist finished with 31 saves and save percentage of .939, which in most instances is good enough to win. But the Rangers are a scoring-challenged bunch, and that places even more responsibility on Lundqvist to be nearly perfect.
“He’s going to have to be,” Rangers Coach John Tortorella said. “All playoff teams, if you’re going to win, your goaltender is going to have to be your best player.”
Over the first 54 minutes of the game, he was all of that. Among his most dramatic saves in the first period included stopping Mike Green, the Capitals’ potent offensive defenseman, from the right faceoff circle, using his left shoulder to deflect Semin’s bid a few minutes later and redirecting with his mask right wing Mike Knuble’s one-on-one offering from nearly point blank.
Shortly before the end of the second, Lundqvist kept the shutout going by thwarting center Nicklas Backstrom, who had skated in uncontested. Backstrom tried to fit a backhander between Lundqvist’s pads, but the puck glanced of the inside of his right thigh.
It wasn’t until 6:16 remained in regulation that Lundqvist showed a bit of vulnerability. That’s when Ovechkin scored amid a flurry of congestion to the right of the crease, and even then, the puck barely squirted across the goal line before the net came loose.
Lundqvist, who led the NHL this season with 11 shutouts, barely had time to act on Semin’s winner.
Arnott gained control near the right boards, spotted Semin free in the slot and delivered the puck that seconds later had Lundqvist twisted around as it sailed into the net.
“We tried to clear the puck, and we stopped, and everybody was going the other way,” Lundqvist said of the second goal. “They made a good play, and then the shot was a rocket. It’s hard to react on that one.”