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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.

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.”

The proud hockey history of Warroad, Minnesota: ‘Hockeytown USA’

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Today the NBC Sports Group is celebrating Hockey Day in America with an NHL quadrupleheader while featuring grassroots hockey stories from across the country. 

Located less than a half hour from the Canadian border, and with a population of just under 1,800, Warroad, Minnesota is probably an easy town to miss unless you happen to be from there, or know somebody from there.

At first glance it would seem to be no different than any other small town in America.

But this isn’t just some random small town.

This small town has become such a hockey factory and developed such a rich history within the sport — at all levels — that it has been dubbed “Hockeytown, USA.”

And with all apologies to the folks in Detroit, it is not a moniker that is out of place.

For a town whose population has never topped the 2,000 mark since it was officially incorporated in 1901, it has been a significant power in the United States hockey community with a legacy that has produced five NHL players, seven Olympians, and more than 80 (men and women combined) Division I hockey players.

It’s also town that has become a dominant powerhouse in the Minnesota High School community with six state totals (four for the men’s team, two for the women’s team) over the past 20 years alone.

It’s a legacy that a lot of major metropolitan areas can not even compete with, and to get an understanding of how this small town can be such a hockey power it all starts with not only getting players started at a young age and developing a passion for the sport, but also making sure they have the ability to actually follow through with it.

Warroad is home to two major indoor ice rinks — including a 1,500 seat Olympic sized rink — both of which are proud to feature free ice-time for anybody who wants it, for as long as they want it. Kids can come as early as they want, stay as late as they want, and skate for as long as they want. One of the biggest obstacles in a lot of areas for kids when it comes to getting into the sport can be associated with ice time, whether it be the ice time itself, or the costs associated with getting it.

In Warroad, the mindset is to make sure they always have access to it.

One of the biggest driving forces behind hockey in Warroad over the years has been the Marvin Family, owners of the largest employer in Warroad (Marvin Windows and Doors), for contributing to the construction of the Warroad Gardens rink and helping to ensure that kids always have a place to skate. That commitment has helped drive a passion for hockey in the town that has helped it produce a lasting impact on the sport that has been felt locally (the dominant boys and girls high school programs), Internationally, and in the NHL.

One of Warroad’s most famous claims is that both of the gold medal winning teams in men’s hockey have included players from the town, all thanks to the Christian family. Roger and Bill Christian both played on the 1960 Squaw Valley team and went on to become members of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. Bill’s son, Dave Christian, was a key member of the 1980 Miracle On Ice team that upset the Soviet Union and then went on to beat Finland for the Gold Medal at Lake Placid. Following his Olympic success he went on to a 13-year career in the NHL.

On the women’s side, Gigi Marvin, the granddaughter of Cal Marvin, known locally as “the godfather of Warroad Hockey,” has been a spectacular ambassador for the sport both locally and nationally. She was an NCAA star at the University of Minnesota, was a member of the 2010 and 2014 women’s silver medal Olympic teams, is a four-time gold medalist at the World Championships, and currently a member of the NWHL’s Boston Pride where she was the league’s 2016 defensive player of the year and a 2017 All-Star.

Warroad’s NHL legacy began in 1971 with the debut of Henry Boucha, a silver medalist at the 1972 Olympics, and another member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. It’s legacy continued with Christian and Al Hanglesben in the 1980s, and still continues today with current NHL stars Brock Nelson (New York Islanders) and T.J. Oshie (Washington Capitals).

With such a rich history and contribution to hockey, and a passion to continue growing the sport, Warroad is sure to continue as one of America’s greatest hockey towns.

More on Warroad, Minnesota

For Oshie, ties to Warroad run deep

On Nelson’s hockey journey, from Northern Minnesota to Brooklyn

Canucks unveil Pat Quinn statue

VANCOUVER - JANUARY 10:  Head Coach Pat Quinn of the Toronto Maple Leafs looks on during their NHL game against the Vancouver Canucks at General Motors Place on January 10, 2006 in Vancouver, Canada. The Canucks defeated the Maple Leafs 4-3.  (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)
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Pat Quinn was finally appropriately honored for his contributions to hockey in 2016 with a posthumous induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

On Saturday night he was given another honor when the Canucks unveiled a statue of him outside of The Rogers Centre before their 2-1 win overtime win against the Calgary Flames.

Quinn, a player for nine years in the league and a long-time executive and coach, spent two of his seasons as a defenseman in Vancouver and then spent parts of five seasons behind the team’s bench between the 1990-91 and 1995-96 seasons.

He compiled a 141-111-28 record as the team’s coach, and led the team to the 1994 Stanley Cup Final.

Here is a look at the statue.

Along with his time as a coach, he also spent several years in the team’s front office and played a significant role in acquiring several key pieces of that 1994 team, including goaltender Kirk McLean by way of a trade with the New Jersey Devils, and then drafting Trevor Linden and Pavel Bure. The Bure pick was an especially shrewd move because it came in a year when most teams did not know he was eligible to be picked. Bure would go on to be one of the most exciting players in the league and one of the best Canucks ever.

Burns continued to build Hart argument in Sharks win last night

NEWARK, NJ - FEBRUARY 12:  San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns #88 celebrates his goal against the New Jersey Devils during their game at the Prudential Center on February 12, 2017 in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) The San Jose Sharks were facing a team that had been playing well in an arena buzzing with energy following a pregame ceremony.

Once they handled the initial onrush, the Sharks struck first to subdue the crowd and their opponent.

Brent Burns scored two goals, Aaron Dell had a career-high 36 saves and the Sharks beat the Arizona Coyotes for the first time this season, 4-1 on Saturday night.

“We kind of weathered their storm early; there was a lot of energy in the building,” Sharks center Joe Pavelski said. “We got to (Coyotes goalie Mike Smith) in the first period. When you get one or two on him early, it kind of breaks them down a little bit and play from behind. That was a big key.”

The Sharks bounced back from a slow start in their last game by scoring two goals in the first period and another early in the second to quiet a crowd energized by a ceremony honoring the first Coyotes team in the desert. Dell was sharp in his 11th start of the season, and the Pacific Division-leading Sharks were good in front of him to avoid a season sweep (1-3-1) by the last-place Coyotes.

Melker Karlsson had a goal and two assists, and Micheal Haley had a goal and an assist for San Jose.

Burns, of course, was at the center of the offense from the blue line.

The NHL’s third-leading scorer, he had a goal in the first period and his 27th of the season in the third to match the team record for goals by a defenseman that he set in 2015-16. It was his third two-goal game of the season and second in the last three games.

“He’s having an MVP season. He’s been that good for us all year and it’s every night,” Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. “I don’t know what else to say. In my mind, he’s the best player in the league right now.”

The Coyotes could not capitalize on a rowdy, sellout crowd. Arizona peppered Dell with 29 shots in the first two periods but didn’t score until Martin Hanzal punched in a rebound in the third, when they were down 3-0.

Hanzal scored his fifth goal in five games and Smith stopped 29 shots for Arizona.

“We were pretty good in the period and I don’t want to say they were lucky goals, but they scored first and after that, it’s hard to chase a team like the Sharks,” Hanzal said.

The Sharks trailed 3-1 in the first period and 6-3 in the third before rallying for a point against Florida on Wednesday. On Saturday, they took an early lead when Burns fired a shot through traffic to beat Smith to the stick side.

Karlsson made it 2-0 late in the period, keeping the puck on a 2-on-1 and wristing one past Smith on the stick side again.

San Jose kept the pressure up early in the second, making it a three-goal lead when Haley scored on a one-timer from between the circles for his first of the season.

Burns stopped Arizona’s momentum late in the period, wristing a shot that slipped through Smith’s pads on a power play.

“That wasn’t my best game. I thought our team did a good job tonight to give ourselves a chance to win,” Smith said. “They were opportunistic in the first period and we couldn’t capitalize on our chances and when that happens, you usually lose.”

NOTES: Along with honoring their 1996-97 team – the first after the franchise moved from Winnipeg – in a ceremony before the game, Arizona also announced its all-time starting six, which included current players Smith, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and captain Shane Doan. … Haley’s goal was his first since March 5, 2016 against Vancouver. … Hanzal moved past Pat Elynuik for 13th on the franchise list with his 116th career goal.

UP NEXT

San Jose hosts Boston on Sunday before getting a five-day break from all hockey-related activities.

Arizona hosts Anaheim on Monday before playing five of its next six games on the road.

NBC and NBCSN have you covered for Hockey Day in America

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With two games on NBC and then two more on NBCSN, your Sunday should be jam-packed with Hockey Day in America action. A look at the hockey hotbed of Warroad, Minnesota adds a delectable cherry on top, too.

If you need a guide to this party of pucks and patriotism, look no further than this post.

Washington Capitals at New York Rangers, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC

John Carlson, T.J. Oshie and the dominant Capitals take on Ryan McDonagh and the Blueshirts. The Metropolitan Division represents some of the NHL’s upper crust, so don’t be fooled by the Rangers being the first wild card while the Caps are tops in the East; both of these teams can go. Kenny Albert and Brian Boucher will be there to call the action.

MORE: For Oshie, ties to Warroad run deep

Detroit Red Wings at Pittsburgh Penguins, 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC

Mike “Doc” Emrick and Eddie Olczyk will be in the booth for this battle between teams that met in back-to-back Stanley Cup Final series in 2008 and 2009. Along with usual suspects like Sidney Crosby and Henrik Zetterberg, these teams feature American scorers such as Dylan Larkin and, of course, Phil Kessel.

Chicago Blackhawks at Buffalo Sabres, 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN

The action shifts to NBCSN as Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks hope to teach Jack Eichel and the upstart Sabres a lesson or two. The Blackhawks are in playoff position, as usual, while Buffalo is rallying to try to make a push of its own. Gord Miller and Joe Micheletti will be your guides.

MORE: Islanders forward Brock Nelson’s journey from Warroad to the NHL

Boston Bruins at San Jose Sharks, 8:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Hockey Day in America’s coverage closes off with this matchup between David Backes‘ Bruins and Joe Pavelski‘s Sharks. Randy Hahn, Andy Brickley and Bret Hedican will take you through this match between the Pacific Division’s top team and a Bruins team fighting to stick in the East playoff picture.