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.

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.”

Fantasy adds & drops: It’s Teuvo Time

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Every week, PHT will look to give you some fantasy hockey advice. This column will attempt to shed some light on the waiver wire by helping you pick up quality players that are owned in less than 50 percent of Yahoo! leagues.

Also, we’ll let you know which players owned in more 50 percent of leagues you should part ways with at this point.

As you can tell from today’s headline, Teuvo Teravainen is going to be involved in the article. But when you read the headline, I want you to read it with Arnold’s voice in mind (top).

Alright, now that that’s out of the way, we can start.

Adds:

–Teuvo Teravainen-C/LW/RW-Carolina Hurricanes (owned in 43 percent of Yahoo leagues)

Not only is Teravainen eligible to play all three forward positions, he’s also been extremely productive in 2017-18. After collecting three points in a win over the Islanders on Sunday, the ‘Canes forward now has 19 points in 19 games this season. Definitely worth an add.

David Perron-LW/RW-Vegas Golden Knights (44 percent)

Perron is averaging close to 18 minutes of ice time per game, which means he has ample opportunity to chip in offensively. That’s exactly what he’s done in the first quarter of the season, as he leads the Golden Knights in points with 17 in 19 games. Even though he saw his six-game point streak come to an end on Sunday, he should continue to produce going forward. Like Teravainen, the fact that he can play multiple positions in fantasy also helps his value.

[Fantasy Podcast: Rotoworld on what’s going on with Carey Price]

Mathew Barzal-C-New York Islanders (33 percent)

I’m not sure why fantasy GMs keep snoozing on Barzal, who has emerged as a legitimate Calder Trophy candidate this season. The Isles forward has registered at least one point in nine of his last 11 games. He’s already up to 19 points in 20 games in his first full season.

Brock Boeser-RW-Vancouver Canucks (42 percent)

Like Barzal, Boeser continues to be criminally under-owned in standard fantasy leagues. The Canucks forward is currently riding a three-game point streak and he’s been able to stay on a point-per-game pace in his first full NHL season. Boeser has 17 points in 17 games right now.

Mattias Ekholm-D-Nashville Predators (44 percent)

Ekholm has been fantastic since the end of October. Since Oct. 28, he’s accumulated nine points in nine games. As of this moment, he’s scored a goal in three straight games and he has five points during that stretch. He’s the number one defenseman to add on the waiver wire this week.

Matt Niskanen-D-Washington Capitals (45 percent)

Niskanen is finally back from the upper-body injury that kept him out of the Caps lineup for 13 games. In three games since returning, he’s managed to pick up just a single assist, but that should change going forward. He isn’t a major point producer, but he still has value at that position.

[More Fantasy: Check out Rotoworld’s PP Report]

Drops:

Ondrej Palat-LW-Tampa Bay Lightning (57 percent)

Palat is on pace to record a 50-point season, which is nothing to scoff at, but he’s clearly behind guys like Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov in Tampa when it comes to offensive options. Picking up one of the forwards listed above at Palat’s expense makes a lot of sense.

Derick Brassard-C-Ottawa Senators (55 percent)

Brassard got off to a great start this season, but he’s cooled down considerably over the last few weeks. He’s failed to collect a point in each of his last three games and he’s registered just five points in his last 11 games (he has no goals during that span). Brassard might get hot in the future, but for now you can safely drop him from your lineup.

Patrick Maroon-LW-Edmonton Oilers (56 percent)

This isn’t the first time Maroon’s been mentioned on this list. Unless you play in a league that awards points for penalty minutes, I don’t get why you’d still have him on your roster. Maroon has two points in his last eight games and both of those came in the same contest. Adding Barzal, Teravainen or Boeser would make more sense.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Brendan Smith ejected for ‘dangerous’ hit on Mark Borowiecki (video)

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The New York Rangers were able to take down the Ottawa Senators on Sunday even though they were forced to play with five defensemen for most of the third period.

With the Rangers leading 2-0 in the third (they ended up winning 3-0), defenseman Brendan Smith was given a five-minute major plus a game misconduct for interference on Sens defenseman Mark Borowiecki.

Borowiecki needed help getting off the ice, and after the game Sens head coach Guy Boucher confirmed that his defenseman lost consciousness on the ice. He’s been diagnosed with a concussion.

You can watch the play by clicking the video at the top of the page. 

After the game, Smith made it clear that he didn’t agree with the referee’s decision to toss him from the contest.

“I think it was a bit harsh,” Smith said, per Newsday. “I’m OK with two minutes [for interference] . . . We made eye contact and he was expecting to get hit. He’s a pretty big guy, a strong guy. I kind of just connected with my shoulder. You see those plays happen all the time. It’s just unfortunate, the outcome. You don’t want to see anyone get hurt. Hopefully, he’ll be OK.”

Guy Boucher called the play “one of the most dangerous hits you can make in hockey.”

It’ll be interesting to see if the NHL’s Department of Player Safety hands out any supplemental discipline to Smith on this one.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: On Nico Hischier getting his own (bacon-less) sandwich

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Nico Hischier hasn’t been in Jersey long, but he already has his own sandwich at a local deli. What’s inside? Grilled chicken, raw onion, lettuce, tomato and Swiss cheese. The concerning thing is that Hischier refused the chance to add bacon to his sandwich. Who doesn’t like bacon? (Sports Illustrated)

–Luke, who is a young Capitals fan, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that is inoperable. Caps winger Alex Ovechkin recently spent time with Luke. That’s just awesome. (Russianmachineneverbreaks.com)

John Tavares is the biggest name on the Islanders roster, but it’s the combination of Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle that have helped spark New York. (Sportsnet)

Cam Atkinson‘s new contract can be used as a comparable for potential free agent Patric Hornqvist, according to pensburgh.com. If that’s the case, it doesn’t sound like the Pens will be able to keep him beyond July 1st. (Pensburgh.com)

–Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore opened the year in the AHL, but his days in the minors appear to be over. The 22-year-old is a key piece of Vegas’ present and future. (Sinbin.Vegas)

–The Dallas Stars have had plenty of problems this season. They aren’t getting goals from depth players, their goaltending has been inconsistent, and a group of struggling defensemen. Why haven’t they fixed this issues? Maybe because they just can’t. (Blackoutdallas.com)

–Artist Tony Harris painted portraits of all of the top 100 players. It took a while, but he finally finished the project with paintings of Yvan Cournoyer and Wayne Gretzky. “All of a sudden, I went from a struggling artist to having as much work as I wanted,” Harris said. (Toronto Star)

–Islanders GM Garth Snow takes a lot of heat for some of the moves he’s made, but getting Josh Bailey was probably the most creative acquisition he made through the draft. (nyislesblog.com)

–The New Jersey Devils have surprised the hockey world this year. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Pavel Zacha, who’s been a colossal disappointment so far. There’s a few things they could do to try to get him out of this funk. They could send him to the AHL, move him to the wing full-time, or even force the experiment to work down the middle. (pucksandpitchforks.com)

–Gary Bettman has been really pleased with the NHL’s revenue stream (he says it’s around $4-5 billion), so don’t be surprised if the salary cap goes up to anywhere between $80-82 million next season. (Spectorshockey.net)

–The Capitals are barely over .500, which means that this next 10-game stretch will be huge for their them. If they don’t show significant improvement, a major change or two could be coming. (novacapsfans.com)

Adam Henrique is doing his part to raise money during Movember. Not only is he raising money by growing a mustache, he’s also organizing the inaugural Rico’s Soiree to benefit Movember. “I’m looking forward to just meeting all of the people who will be at the soirée,” said Henrique. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous, but we will have some of the players joining me which will help a lot and may even have some family in for the event.” (NHLPA.com)

–Gabe, a 14-year-old boy from Ottawa that has a prosthetic leg, has turned out to be an incredible goalie for his youth hockey team. “I just love playing the game and play whenever I can. When I’m playing, there are certain moves that are more challenging, so I have to adapt those moves to fit my mobility. I just push myself to go to the highest level possible.” (Ottawa Citizen)

–Here’s a Q&A with Lightning rookie Mikhail Sergachev, where he talked about the difficulties of playing in the NHL, where he’s made the biggest improvements, and Tampa’s Russian mafia. (Rawcharge.com)

–It’s been 16 months since the Predators and Canadiens swapped Shea Weber for P.K. Subban. The Montreal Gazette took a look back at one of the biggest trades of the last decade. (Montreal Gazette)

–There’s been a lot of talk about Houston getting an NHL team. If that were to happen in the near future, what should they be called? (Chron.com)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Down but not out: There’s hope for those below playoff line

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It’s 20 games into the regular season, give or take, and your team is looking pretty far down the standings.

It looks bad, American Thanksgiving is approaching quickly, and prayers to the hockey gods are going unanswered.

Aye, but it might not be all doom and gloom. Not yet, at least.

Take the Philadelphia Flyers, for instance.

Flyers fans are concerned given their team’s current four-game winless streak. They’ve won just three of their past 10 contests and are sitting with a less than superb 8-8-4 record.

Yet, given how tight the Metropolitan Division has started, the Flyers, who sit in the basement of the division, are only five points off its pinnacle despite their recent downswing.

If you’re looking for a silver lining, you can find some solace in that.

Anything appears to be possible in the stacked Met. The New York Rangers began the season 3-7-2 but are just three points adrift of the summit now. Sure, their 7-3-0 record in their past time games is certainly helping their cause, but it goes to show that stringing together a few wins can reverse early season misfortunes.

Now, if the Flyers could only figure out how to stop blowing two-goal leads and fix their discipline issues

Over in the Western Conference, the Vancouver Canucks have only won three out of their last 10 games dating back to Oct. 30. This, after starting the season 6-3-1.

Their recent skid hasn’t done them any favours, but the pending return of defenseman Chris Tanev could be the shot in the arm they need.

What about some of the teams that really look down and out, you ask?

The Edmonton Oilers have most certainly failed expectations so far this season.

With just seven wins and the team sitting in 28th spot in goals for, despite having Connor McDavid in the lineup, there’s definitely a cause for concern.

Their current two-game skid coupled with losing four of their past five is far from ideal, but the Oilers, despite their poor play, are only five points back of the final wild card spot in the Western Conference.

The Oilers have the goal scoring in them. They finished eighth last season in the category. Some consistency would be nice. They put up eight against the Vegas Golden Knights last Tuesday but just two goals combined in their losses to Washington prior to that game and St. Louis following it.

Continuing with the five-point trend, the Montreal Canadiens — yes, these Montreal Canadiens — find themselves five points behind the Washington Capitals for the final wild card in the Eastern Conference heading into Monday’s action.

Losers of two straight and four of their past five, things don’t look great from Les Canadiens and it would appear changes are coming.

Indeed, the problems in Montreal are numerous: low goals for, high goals against, bad save percentage, bad shooting percentage, bad power play, bad penalty kill.
At this point, it’s going to take a minor miracle in La belle province but they’re still in the mix despite their unfavourable results.

Things might be looking up, however.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck