140527-henrik-lundqvist-640

King Henrik and the mythical hot goalie

18 Comments

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.

MORE: Watch live Stanley Cup Playoff games  |  Channel Finder  |  NHL on NBC

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.”

Late letdown costs Canucks versus their old rivals from Chicago

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 22: Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrtaes a third period goal against the Vancouver Canucks at the United Center on January 22, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Canucks 4-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Getty
1 Comment

Sure, the Vancouver Canucks clawed back against an old rival, the Chicago Blackhawks, on Sunday.

But, thanks to a late letdown in regulation, they missed out on a great opportunity to move into a playoff position.

Down a pair of goals in the third period, the Canucks managed to come back in hostile territory. It started with a Troy Stecher power play goal. Bo Horvat, in the lineup two days after getting hit in the back of the head with a slap shot, tied it up for Vancouver just 46 seconds later.

But the chance for at least a single point slipped at the worst possible time, as Jonathan Toews scored with 1:18 left in regulation and then set up an empty net goal from Marian Hossa just a few seconds later to secure the 4-2 win.

The Canucks remain stuck at five wins — just five wins — on the road. They have the 29th-ranked road record in the entire NHL. Only the Arizona Coyotes have been worse away from home ice. So, that’s a problem that needs to be fixed down the stretch.

Vancouver had a chance to move into a wild card spot. Instead, they let the Blackhawks regain momentum as the period went on, and as a result, they remain on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture for right now.

Corey Crawford earned his 200th career win, making 26 saves. That’s a milestone night for him. For Toews, that’s his most productive night of the season, as he factored into all four Chicago goals, which, of course, included the winner.

This has been a difficult year for Toews. He’s been injured. His point production has been down.

Video: Giroux bumps scoring slump to give Flyers the OT win

2 Comments

The Philadelphia Flyers needed a win.

So overtime against the New York Islanders seemed like a perfect time for captain Claude Giroux to bust his scoring slump.

Without a goal in his last 12 games, or since Dec. 21 before the holiday break, Giroux finished the Flyers comeback with an overtime goal to give Philly a 3-2 victory on Sunday. Jakub Voracek did great work along the boards to force a turnover from John Tavares, and Shayne Gostisbehere followed up his chance with a quick pass to a wide-open Giroux at the top of the crease.

That comeback win — Philly trailed by two goals early in the second period — bumps the Flyers back into a wild card spot.

Steve Mason had a big game in net for Philly, with 36 saves, while the Flyers fired 47 shots on goal toward Thomas Greiss, although it’s a difficult task trying to re-set and stop Giroux — an accomplished scorer in the NHL — on the doorstep.

Goals, goals and more goals! Blue Jackets outlast Senators for overtime win

COLUMBUS, OH - JANUARY 19:  Mike Condon #1 of the Ottawa Senators stops a shot from Cam Atkinson #13 of the Columbus Blue Jackets as Mike Hoffman #68 of the Ottawa Senators skates back on defense during the third period on January 19, 2017 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Ottawa defeated Columbus 2-0. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
Getty
Leave a comment

Plenty of goals. A little three-on-three overtime. Seemed like an enjoyable afternoon of hockey between the Ottawa Senators and Columbus Blue Jackets.

Well, maybe the goalies, Mike Condon and Joonas Korpisalo, didn’t enjoy it as much.

The Blue Jackets prevailed for a 7-6 overtime win, with Cam Atkinson scoring just 1:09 into the extra period. That’s his 23rd goal of the season. Only two players — Jeff Carter (24) and Sidney Crosby (28) — have scored more goals than Atkinson this season.

With the win, and the Capitals sitting idle today, the Blue Jackets move back into a tie with Washington at 68 points in the fight for first place in the Metropolitan Division.

There were some anxious moments for Columbus.

Rookie defenseman Zach Werenski was hurt blocking a shot in the third period. He briefly left the game, unable to put any pressure on his right leg as he was helped off.

The good news: He only missed a few minutes, returning late in regulation and for the overtime as well, which is important for the Blue Jackets.

Despite his rookie status, and being a 19-year-old blue liner, Werenski is having an impressive season with six goals and 26 points in 45 games before Sunday.

“The thing that has impressed me the most about him is he’s a bit unflappable,” coach John Tortorella said earlier this season.

“He’s made a couple of huge mistakes in a game and he comes to the bench, shakes it off and then goes out and makes a great play. For a 19-year-old playing that position and the amount of time he’s getting in key situations with this organization, it’s pretty impressive.”

Julien: ‘We don’t have enough talent to … get away with a mediocre game’

Boston Bruins head coach Claude Julien looks up at the score board during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Edmonton Oilers in Boston, Monday, Dec. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
AP
6 Comments

Another game, another loss for the Boston Bruins, who came apart in the third period of Sunday’s game versus Pittsburgh, resulting in a 5-1 defeat.

That’s four straight losses for the Bruins. Claude Julien’s job security appears on the line. Following talk of Julien’s future in Boston, there has been criticism toward the Bruins front office for failure to improve key areas of their roster during the offseason.

On Saturday, Julien said he wasn’t quitting on his team. On Sunday, after another frustrating defeat, in which Boston carried the play, particularly in the second period, Julien offered a pretty frank assessment of his team and its current make up.

“This is a team that needs all 20 guys going to win. We don’t have enough talent to think we can get away with a mediocre game,” he said, per Fluto Shinzawa of the Boston Globe.

Scoring is a major issue for the Bruins. They’ve been terrific with puck possession, the best team in the league in that category at even strength, but they’re in the bottom third of the league when it comes to goals-for. Against the Penguins, they tested Matt Murray with 45 shots, including 22 in the second period, and could only manufacture one goal.

It didn’t help Boston’s cause that their starting goalie Tuukka Rask left the game due to migraines and didn’t return. Zane McIntyre entered the game and was ventilated for three goals in under three minutes in the third period. Game over.

And that just adds more scrutiny on the Bruins and Julien’s job security.

“Right now we’re all confident in Claude, and we all want to be here and play for him. If [saving Julien’s job] is the extra motivation you need for the games then so be it,” said Patrice Bergeron, per CSNNE.com.

“But we’re all professionals and we’re here to win hockey games. I’ve said this before that I’ve been with Claude for 10 years, and he’s the guy that I believe in and that I want to play for.”