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King Henrik and the mythical hot goalie

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NEW YORK — It takes Tao to play goalie in the National Hockey League, and it’s possible that nobody understands this better at the moment than a well-dressed, guitar-playing, restaurant-owning, Swedish magazine cover model named Henrik Lundqvist. For nine years now, no goalie on earth has been as consistently good as Lundqvist. There are various numbers that show this to be true, and we will get to those.

Still, for nine years in the NHL, there is one thing Henrik Lundqvist has never been.  He has never been the hot goalie.

Jonathan Quick has been the hot goalie. Tim Thomas has been the hot goalie. Corey Crawford has been the hot goalie. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, basically out of nowhere, has been the hot goalie. Patrick Roy … Marty Brodeur … Ed Belfour … you know the names. You also know what the hot goalie means. Every now and again, a goalie will take over the playoffs. Against odds and logic, he stops everything. He stands on his head. He gets inside opponents’ heads. He defeats teams before games even begin. He keeps stopping pucks all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

Even for those people driven by numbers and data, the hot goalie is an almost mythical creature — some brilliant and chance concoction of skill and focus and luck and providence. Lundqvist has never quite had the formula. He led Sweden to an Olympic gold medal when he was 23 years old. He has been a brilliant goaltender season after season, and he has raised his game in the biggest moments, including in the playoffs.

Somehow, though, he has never quite been the hot goalie all the way through.

Then: It takes a beautiful sense of Tao to play goalie in the NHL. And Henrik Lundqvist intends to be the hot goalie by not trying to be the hot goalie.

* * *

The New York media surrounds Henrik Lundqvist because he is, by far, the most interesting person on the New York sports scene these days. Derek Jeter is roaming the country picking up parting gifts, Eli Manning is trying to find himself after leading the NFL in interceptions again and Carmelo Anthony might stay or might go — and there seems no consensus which way the city is rooting.

Then there’s Lundqvist … if a casting call went out for someone to play the perfect New York sports hero, the director would take one look at Lundqvist and send everybody else home. The guy has been on People Magazine’s 100 most beautiful people list. The guy dresses for Polo ads. The guy played guitar in a rock band. He owns a restaurant in Tribeca. He’s Namath in a goalie mask. He’s DiMaggio in pads.

So the reporters and cameras surround him and try to get him to talk about his recent genius. The Rangers are one victory away from the first Stanley Cup Final since the Mark Messier team 20 years ago. It would be only their second appearance in the Final since ESPN was launched in 1979.

MORE: Motivation easy for Rangers  |  Therrien decries Habs’ weak power play

The big reason is Lundqvist. He has been alternately great and extraordinary in these playoffs. Twice, the Rangers have been forced to play a Game 7. Twice, Lundqvist was legendary. In the first round Game 7, he stopped 26 of 27 shots on goal against the Flyers — this just one game after he had been pulled in the third period. “I didn’t think about the last game,” he said, because he never does.

In the conference semifinal Game 7 against a desperate Pittsburgh team trying to live up to expectations, Lundqvist stopped 35 of 36 shots and left witnesses with their jaws dropped. The Penguins had led the series three games to one; this seemed to be Sidney Crosby’s chance to win another Stanley Cup after five disappointing years. The Penguins scored just three more goals the rest of the series. They had no idea how to beat Lundqvist.

And in Game 7, Lundqvist was almost impenetrable as the Penguins made a frantic effort to save themselves. This was the fifth straight time the Rangers won a Game 7 with Lundqvist in goal. That is an NHL record.

“His 35 saves,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said morosely afterward, “are the difference in the game.”

The Rangers lead this Montreal series, 3-1, and Lundqvist has at times gone to an even higher level. In Game 2, the Canadiens fired 41 shots at him, attacking him from all sides. He saved 40 of them. Ten times he saved shots from 10-feet and in.

“The reason we lost the game tonight was Lundqvist,” Montreal coach Michel Therrien said plainly afterward. “Lundqvist was phenomenal. Phenomenal. Stole the game.”

He was so good that game, in fact, that Montreal’s P.K. Subban made a salient point that gets to the heart of the hot goalie: NOBODY is that good.

“Sometimes, the puck doesn’t go in,” Subban told the Toronto Star. “In the past, we’ve done those same things and the puck’s gone in. So, I mean, is he playing well? Yeah, but we’re doing a good job. Some of it is luck, as well. He’s getting a little bit lucky. But that’s what you need in the playoffs.”

Of course, the “luck” part of that quote made a direct flight to New York, where people immediately raced over to Lundqvist to get him to respond. Luck? Was Subban even watching? Was this just sour grapes? Did he dare suggest that King Henrik, who has been all-but-unbeatable for weeks, had been lucky? All around the Rangers’ locker room, the Subban quote was kicked and pummeled and mocked and questioned. But a funny thing happened when people presented it to Lundqvist.

WATCH: Lundqvist steals Game 2  |  Is King Henrik just ‘lucky’? 

The key has been his teammates, he said.

The idea that a goaltender carries a team is ridiculous, he said.

And as for the luck part? Well …

“You definitely need luck,” he said. “It’s a fast game. There are so many things you can’t control.”

Wait, Henrik Lundqvist was agreeing with Subban?

“You do everything you can to be prepared,” he said. “And you will take some luck too.”

* * *

Here’s something you probably know: Goaltending has been getting better rapidly in the NHL. The league starting counting shots on goals in 1983 — that first year the goalies save percentage was .873. It is 40 points higher now.

Save percentages every five years:

1983-84: .873

1988-89: .879

1993-94: .895

1998-99: .908

2003-04: .911

2008-09: .908

2013-14: .914

There was a drop in save percentage in the middle 2000s. Eric Tulsky, one of the brightest hockey analysts anywhere (and one of the smartest people period — the guy has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and physics from Harvard; a Ph.D in chemistry from Berkeley) explains that the drop directly related to a huge increase in power plays in 2005-06. The league, you will remember, started calling the game more closely in an effort to negate some of the advantages of the neutral zone trap and increase scoring. There was an average of 5.85 power plays per team that year, the all-time record. More power plays create more goals and lower save percentages.

But power plays have gone way down (this year there was only an average of 3.27 power play opportunities, the second lowest since the NHL began keeping track 50 years ago). And goalies are saving shots at an all-time rate.

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Put it this way: Between 1983-92, not one of the nine goalies who won the Vezina Trophy for best goaltender had a save percentage as good as the AVERAGE NHL goalie this season.

There are many reasons for goalies stopping more pucks. Bigger pads certainly play a role (though as Tulsky points out, the NHL mandated smaller pads this year, but five-on-five save percentages were actually a touch higher than last year). Better technique and film study and smarter play on angles plays a role. There are people around the league who insist that players are blocking more shots and so making the goalie’s job a little bit easier, though the data on this is a bit muddled.

And, of course, hockey is a very different game from those crazy scoring days in the 1980s and early ’90s. Here’s something fun to think about: Players are getting about as many shots on goal as they did in those high-scoring days. There are just many fewer pucks going in the net. Between 1983-93, players had 11 different seasons with 70-plus goals — Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Brett Hull, Alexander Mogliny and even the ageless Teemu Selanne among them. Since 1994, there have been so many great scorers, bur there have been no 70-goal seasons. You can break down the changes many different ways, but this much seems to be true: Goalies are much better at keeping pucks out.

What does this mean for the game? Well, goalies across the NHL are playing better — the gap between the top and the bottom is shrinking. In 1990, just as an example, Patrick Roy’s .912 save percentage was 32 points better than league average. This year, Boston’s Tuukka Rask had a .930 save percentage, the best for any goalie with 40 or more games. But that was only 16 points above average.

And so: Theories abound. Some say goalies are now expendable — they say that teams should not invest huge money in goaltenders because average goaltenders perform almost as well as good ones. Then, some say the shrinking gap has made consistently elite goaltending even MORE valuable because teams simply cannot score enough goals to win with a mediocre goalie.

MORE: Rangers can punch Final ticket  |  Gearing up for Game 5

You certainly don’t have to convince anyone in New York about the importance of Lundqvist. He has been the most consistent of goalies — his career .920 save percentage is the best among active goalies and second-best all time (behind Hasek). He has twice led the conference in shutouts, and he has won the Vezina Trophy. But more to the point: Before he settled in goal for New York, the Rangers had not made the playoffs seven consecutive years. They’ve only missed the playoffs once since then and they reached the conference final two years ago. Now, they are on the brink of the Stanley Cup Final.

And that’s the final frontier for King Henrik, the one thing that keeps Lundqvist from being the biggest sports star in New York. Those other kings of New York — Namath, Jeter, Reggie, LT, Seaver, Clyde, even Dwight Gooden — won championships. And now, it’s left for Lundqvist to do that hardest and most indescribable thing: Be the hot goalie all the way to the end.

* * *

Eric Tulski tends to work off the data. So does Tom Tango, who has consulted for various NHL teams as well as his better-known role as one of baseball’s leading sabermetricians. Point is, these are guys who focus on what they can see and count rather than on those suspect platitudes like heart and guts and grit and the vague talent to win.

Both, though, concede that a hot goalie is hugely important come playoff time. And both concede that the hot goalie concept is something that boggles the mind.

“It’s hard to tell whether the goalie was hot,” Tango says, “or simply was getting all the bounces.”

“Over this 30 year span,” Tulsky says, “we’ve never seen a spread in goalies large enough that talent would be anywhere as significant as randomness. … All of which is a long-winded way of saying that how hot a goalie is (or, as Tom notes, whatever transient factors might go into a goalie appearing to be hot) is the dominant factor on a team’s playoff save percentage.”

Nobody questions that Lundqvist COULD be hot enough to carry the Rangers the rest of the way. Nobody questions his brilliance. As his backup Cam Talbot says, “Sometimes he makes a save, and your jaw just kind of drops. You’re in awe.”

source: Getty Images

But can Lundqvist stay hot? The best part of the question is that the one person who doesn’t seem to worry about it is Lundqvist himself. He’s an intense person by nature, someone who thinks about his job more or less every minute. Talbot says that, even though he sits right next to Lundqvist in the locker room, and even though he is constantly watching Lundqvist to learn about the position, he and Henrik don’t talk very much.

“He’s always in the moment,” Talbot says. “He’s always thinking about what he needs to be doing. It’s really amazing to see. … He doesn’t really talk very much.”

“Silence is a source of great strength,” the Chinese philosopher and poet Lao Tzu said.

And Lundqvist doesn’t believe in the hot goalie. He doesn’t want all the credit people keep trying to give him. He doesn’t ever believe that things are under control. He never relaxes but he tries not to worry either.

“A good traveler,” Lao Tzu said, “has no fixed plans and no intent on arriving.”

“All it takes is one bad bounce,” Henrik Lundqvist says of giving up goals. That’s the thing that is always out there for an NHL goaltender. One bad bounce. Good goaltenders give up a lot of goals on bad bounces. Hot goaltenders somehow don’t. How do you prevent bad bounces?  You don’t. And you do. That’s the Tao of it.

“Act without expectation,” Lao Tzu said.

“Don’t think about what’s ahead,” Lundqvist said. “Do your job.”

The wise man is one who knows what he does not know,” Lao Tzu said.

“My job is just to stop pucks,” Lundqvist said. “That’s all.”

Creating a realistic expectation for Sidney Crosby’s point total in 2016

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 07: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks on during warmups before playing the against the Washington Capitals in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Verizon Center on May 7, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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This is part of Pittsburgh Penguins day at PHT…

The 2015-16 season had to be the most bizarre season of Sidney Crosby‘s NHL career to this point.

It started with one of the worst 30-game stretches of his NHL career (a stretch where he had just 19 total points), prompting a league-wide discussion where everybody tried to figure out what exactly was wrong with him and why he suddenly lost the ability to score like one of the league’s top players.

It ended with him hoisting the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP after helping lead the Penguins to a Stanley Cup win, erasing five years worth of talk about how he and his team were underachievers in the playoffs.

It wasn’t the ending anybody expected at the start of the season, and especially at the start of December when the season seemed like it was starting to slip away from them.

Much of the blame for his — and the team’s — early struggles was put on the defensive system put in place by coach Mike Johnston. That point was only driven home more in the second half of the season and the playoffs when Crosby — and the Penguins offense as a team — did a complete 180 and took off, skyrocketing to the top of the league.

Crosby himself went from being on a 56-point pace through the first 30 games of the season, to finishing as the third-leading scorer in the league.

The difference in Crosby’s production under the two coaches last season creates creates an interesting question heading into the 2016-17 season: Will he be able return to being the 100-point player he was as recently as two years ago when he was by far the most dominant offensive player in the league, and if not what should we realistically expect?

While Crosby’s production under Johnston for his year-and-a-half tenure behind the bench was the worst of his career, it is also probably unfair to put all of the blame on the coach for that drop in production. The systematic changes and defensive expectations had to definitely play some role in it, but there was a lot more going on than just a chance in coaches and system.

Two other key major contributing factors:

  1. Nearly every top player in the NHL has seen a drop in their production in recent years because goal scoring at a league-wide level continues to trend toward all-time low territory. Since the start of the 2011-12 season only five players have topped 90 points in a single season, while only two (Crosby in 2013-14 and Patrick Kane in 2015-16) have done it over the past three years. Anything over 80 points these days is an elite scorer.
  2. The other factor is that Crosby himself is now in his late 20s, and while he could still have another decade of high level play in the NHL ahead of him, it is likely that he has already played his best hockey, at least when it comes to scoring. Scorers tend to have their best seasons between the ages of 23 and 26, and Crosby’s career has been no different. During those seasons he averaged 1.47 points per game, a pace that is good enough for 120 points over 82 games. The disappointing thing for Crosby and the Penguins during that time is that injuries (and a half season lockout) limited him to just 179 out of a possible 294 regular season games. He was able to play more than 41 games in only one of those four seasons. That means the NHL never really had a chance to fully see Sidney Crosby at his absolute best.

Keep in mind that 1.47 per-game average that Crosby had between his age 23 and 26 seasons. That is an unbelievable level of production for any era of hockey, even going back to the run-and-gun 1980s. You should not realistically expect that level of play from him anymore because the two points made above. It’s an impossible standard for anybody. Over the past 20 years only seven different players have averaged at least 1.47 points per game in a full season. Even Kane “only” averaged 1.29 this past season when he ran away with the scoring title.

If you look at Crosby’s performance last season in only the games that were coached by Sullivan, he had 66 points in 52 regular season games. That is a 1.26 point per game average (103 points over 82 games). If you include the playoffs, it was 85 points in 76 games, a 1.11 point per game average (93 points over 82 games). Both are an obvious increase from the Johnston-coached days, but they are also still a pretty significant decrease from what those totals were five or six years ago when he was scoring at an 120-point pace every year.

That is also the expectation that should probably exist going forward for Crosby.

It’s not unfair to say that Crosby is slowing down as a scorer. Because he is. It’s something that happens to every player when they reach this age. Even the greatest players ever like Gretzky and Lemieux saw significant drops in their scoring after they turned 27.

It also means there shouldn’t be a league-wide panic when he goes through a scoring slump at some point in the season.

It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with him, it just means that he’s not 24 anymore and shouldn’t be expected to score like he is.

He is still going to be the best offensive player in the world. It’s just going to be at a 90-95 point level instead of a 110-120 point level.

Under Pressure: Derrick Pouliot

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 27: Derrick Pouliout #51 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates with the puck against the Washington Capitals at Consol Energy Center on December 27, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
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This is part of Pittsburgh Penguins day at PHT…

When the Pittsburgh Penguins traded Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes following the 2011-12 season for Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoulin and the No. 8 overall pick in the draft (which they used to select Derrick Pouliot), the latter was expected to be one of the key long-term centerpieces of the deal.

Pouliot was a top-10 pick and a puck-moving, offensive defenseman that had the potential to one day be a top-pairing player in the NHL.

Four years later and he has almost become the afterthought of the trade for Pittsburgh.

Dumoulin took a major step forward last season and blossomed into one of the Penguins’ best defensive players, while Sutter was traded before the season for Nick Bonino, who would go on to become a key part of the HBK line, along with Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel. That line was their most productive line in the playoffs and probably the biggest reason they ended up winning the Stanley Cup.

Pouliot, meanwhile, is still trying to find his place in the organization and the NHL, and if he doesn’t take a big step forward this season he could be on the verge of running out of opportunities in Pittsburgh.

When Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff left the Penguins in free agency following the 2014-15 season, it was expected that Pouliot would be one of the young players that would step into the lineup and get an increased opportunity, especially with a head coach — Mike Johnston — that was familiar with him due to their time together in Portland of the Western Hockey League.

But a dismal showing in training camp and the preseason earned him a ticket back to the AHL, and even when he did get called up he never really played a significant role in the lineup.

His experiences in the NHL over past two years have been mixed to say the least. He had a brilliant stretch of play late in the 2014-15 season that highlighted the skills that made him a top-10 pick in the draft, and his possession numbers have always been outstanding. But his play away from the puck has always been a work in progress, and because of his style of play he can be vulnerable to the occasional mistake that can stand out like a sore thumb. Those mistakes always get noticed, and when it is a young player without much of a track record that makes them, it usually results in a very short leash and a lengthy stay in the press box.

The Penguins have almost all of their Stanley Cup defense returning with the lone exception being Ben Lovejoy after he signed with the New Jersey Devils in free agency. Lovejoy’s departure means there will once again be another opportunity for Pouliot to potentially earn a regular spot in the lineup. His main competition will be Justin Schultz, a player that has a similar skillset and has had a similar set of criticisms directed his way throughout his career (highly skilled with the puck, questionable without it). There is probably only room for one of them in the lineup at a time when everybody is healthy, so it is probably going to be a competition between these two for that sixth spot.

Pouliot turns 23 later this season, so he still has a chance to become a productive regular at the NHL level. It’s not like he is past his peak years in the NHL. But he is also at an age where he really isn’t a “prospect” anymore, either. He is starting to enter that suspect territory where his development is at a crossroads.

Entering the final year of his entry level contract before he is eligible for restricted free agency, and with other young defensemen in the organization passing him on the depth chart (Dumoulin and Olli Maatta specifically) this is going to be a big year for Pouliot to show he belongs in the NHL on a regular basis.

Looking to make the leap: Daniel Sprong

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 15:  Daniel Sprong #41 of the Pittsburgh Penguins handles the puck in front of Kyle Turris #7 of the Ottawa Senators during the game at Consol Energy Center on October 15, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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This is part of Pittsburgh Penguins day at PHT…

Daniel Sprong was stuck in a difficult position during the 2015-16 season.

He ended up being just one of eight players from the 2015 draft to play in the NHL, spending the first two months of the season in Pittsburgh after earning a spot on the roster thanks to an impressive training camp and preseason performance. But once there the Penguins really didn’t seem to know what to do with him. He showed flashes of the talent that earned him a spot on the roster, but it was also clear that his play away from the puck needed work and that he never completely had the trust of then-coach Mike Johnston.

If he was not a healthy scratch, he was only playing limited minutes.

But because he was only 18 years old, he was not eligible to play in the American Hockey League during the regular season due to the AHL-CHL transfer agreement.

That meant if he wasn’t going to play in Pittsburgh, a league that was probably a little too advanced for him at the time, he had to return to the QMJHL to play for his junior team, the Charlottetown Islanders, in a league that he was probably too good for. It’s an agreement that works great for the CHL, but doesn’t really give prospects the best chance to develop that season because their only options are a league where they are overmatched or a league where they are probably the best player on the ice every time they go over the boards.

Eventually, the Penguins were left with little choice and did in fact return him to the Q where he, quite predictably, dominated the competition and recorded 46 points in 33 games.

At the conclusion of Charlottetown’s season, he was able to play for the Penguins’ AHL team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton during the playoffs where he scored five goals and added two assists in only 10 games.

The problem he is going to face this season two-fold. First, he is recovering from shoulder surgery that will keep him out of the lineup until January or February. That doesn’t necessarily eliminate him from contributing this season. It just delays it.

The second is that the Penguins’ forward group is already mostly locked in at the start as they are returning everybody from their Stanley Cup winning roster, which is going to make things tight for somebody new to break into the lineup.

But Sprong is still clearly the team’s best forward prospect at the moment and one of the few players in the system that seems to have top-six potential. Whether it’s through his own play forcing his way into NHL action or an injury, he should have an opportunity — once he has recovered — to be a factor at some point this season.

‘He’s earned it’ — Jets name Wheeler new captain

CALGARY, AB - MARCH 16: Blake Wheeler #26 of the Winnipeg Jets in action against the Calgary Flames during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on March 16, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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It was widely assumed that Blake Wheeler would inherit Andrew Ladd‘s captaincy in Winnipeg and, on Wednesday, the club made it official.

Wheeler, 30, will become the second player to captain the Jets since the franchise moved from Atlanta in 2011, with Dustin Byfuglien and Mark Scheifele serving as alternates.

The Wheeler decision was something of a no-brainer, as he’s one of the club’s longest tenured player (seven seasons and counting), spending the the last three as one of Ladd’s alternate captains.

In the summer of ’13, Wheeler inked a six-year, $33.6 million extension with the Jets and has since established himself as one of the clubhouse leaders. He was a prominent voice during the Evander Kane saga, mincing no words when explaining what was expected of Jets players.

“There’s a standard that everyone needs to live up to,” Wheeler said, per the Sun. “We’re professionals, we make a lot of money. And we’re expected to uphold a certain standard. That’s the code we live by.

“If you don’t like it then there’s other places to go. This is the way we do things.”