If goaltending is going to be the deciding factor in the Eastern Conference final, Henrik Lundqvist gives the New York Rangers an edge.
It’s that simple, and Lundqvist provided evidence of that Monday night in Game 1 against the New Jersey Devils, making 21 saves in a 3-0 Rangers victory at Madison Square Garden.
“You always have to step up when the team needs you,” Lundqvist said. “A lot of times, it’s when the team is struggling.
“It’s fun to be there and try to make the difference when your teammates are going through a tough stretch.”
That’s what happened in the second period when Lundqvist stopped 11 shots, including three in rapid-fire succession on Devils captain Zach Parise. The latest Battle of the Hudson is in its early stages, but that sequence could well symbolize what the Rangers had and the Devils didn’t when the best-of-seven series is over.
It’s not that Devils goalie and future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur was terrible or anything close to it. He’s just not as good as he once was, and the 40-year-old is not as good as the 30-year-old Lundqvist, who is a candidate for the Hart and Vezina Trophies.
Lundqvist’s heroics in the second before a packed house at MSG gave his teammates a foundation to build on in the third when they scored all three of their goals. Dan Girardi, Chris Kreider and Anton Anisimov (empty net), provided the offence after Lundqvist provided the defence.
“Of course we are frustrated, but what do you do?” Parise said. “I don’t know if there is much to change up if we got quality chances. You have to put them in. He’s a great goalie, and he is an MVP candidate for a reason. He’s going to make great saves through the series. We have to bear down a little bit more.”
The Devils might have had a lead during the first period if Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh wasn’t fleet afoot. Twice New Jersey had breakaways when the McDonagh-Girardi pair (usually the Rangers’ most reliable) was on the ice.
On the first, Girardi went for a hit on Parise but missed, and only the speed of McDonagh denied Parise from getting a clear shot on Lundqvist. Later in the period, Alexei Ponikarovsky blocked a Girardi shot at the Devils blueline and Kovalchuk scooped up the puck. But there was McDonagh racing back into the play, denying Kovalchuk a solid scoring attempt.
“You never want to be chasing someone down, especially those two players,” McDonagh said. “You try to be smart and not take a penalty or give them a penalty shot, and Henrik did a good job to come out on Kovalchuk there and cut down on the angle. It was a combination of him and me.”
Though the bitter rivals engaged in several bloody brawls during the regular season, there was nothing approaching that Monday, and for good reason. No one would dare start a fight and run the risk of getting an extra two minutes, never mind giving someone an extra shove following a whistle.
“Playing for the Eastern Conference championship and playing your cross-town, cross-river rival — emotions will be something to have to manage,” Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. “You want them. It’s a big part of hockey, and big part of hockey this time of year. And you have to make sure you channel it the right way.”
Brodeur made 25 saves. He jokingly said after the game he couldn’t say how well Lundqvist did because every time he looked down the ice, he could only see Rangers in front of the New York goalie. The Rangers blocked 26 shots.
But Brodeur thought there would be a fairly straightforward solution for his teammates.
“Try to find ways to get pucks at Lundqvist,” Brodeur said. “When you get to these tight games, have to find ways to score goals. We didn’t get any breaks. We have to work for them.”