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.”

After ‘breakout’ year in AHL, Fleury ready to crack ‘Canes lineup

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If it feels like we’ve written about Haydn Fleury being ready to make the leap before… well, it’s because we have.

Quite a few times.

There are reasons for this, of course. Fleury was the second defenseman off the board at the 2014 draft, taken six spots behind No. 1 overall selection Aaron Ekblad. He’s just one of two top-15 picks from his draft year yet to play in the NHL — the fifth overall selection, Isles prospect Michael Dal Colle, is also waiting to make the leap — and he’s already two years behind fellow ‘Canes blueliner Noah Hanifin, who was taken in the ’15 draft and just wrapped his sophomore NHL campaign.

Progress has been a slow process. But now, it finally sounds like Fleury’s ready to break through.

“He’s had, in my opinion, a breakout year,” AHL Charlotte coach Ulf Samuelsson said this week, per the Observer. “He’s been one of our most consistent players. He’s taken a step maybe each month and the last month has made the biggest step because he’s now using his size.

“He’s hard to play against. He’s always been good joining the rush, jumping up, but he has turned into a really good two-way defenseman.”

After a lengthy junior career in Red Deer, Fleury played his first season of pro hockey in Charlotte this season, and acquitted himself nicely. He raced up seven goals and 26 points in 69 games and, as per Samuelsson’s above quote, has used his 6-foot-3, 207-pound frame to his advantage.

Some might look at Fleury’s slow progression to the pro game, and consider him a draft bust. That doesn’t appear to be the case.

‘Canes GM Ron Francis has taken a more deliberate approach with Fleury, 20, and another promising blueliner, 21-year-old Roland McKeown. Both were knocking on the door of making the Carolina roster to start the year, but Francis opted to send them back to Charlotte for more seasoning.

One might wonder why Francis opted to slow play these two, when Hanifin was fast-tracked to the NHL at 18. The answer might not lie with Fleury and McKeown, but rather the group as a whole — Carolina had one of the youngest bluelines in the league this year, featuring Hanifin (20), Jaccob Slavin (22), Brett Pesce (22), Ryan Murphy (24) and Justin Faulk (25).

Murphy, however, could be lost to Las Vegas in the upcoming expansion draft, resulting in an open roster spot. And journeyman Matt Tennyson, who appeared in 45 games on defense for the ‘Canes this season, is a pending UFA.

All this points to Fleury making his long-awaited NHL debut in the fall.

‘We took two steps forward, maybe three’: Kekalainen excited about Blue Jackets’ future

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Despite an early exit from the playoffs, Columbus Blue Jackets executives like the team’s development and defensive depth.

However they won’t rule out a trade this summer that would bring another standout goal-scorer to town.

The Blue Jackets, picked by many to finish near the bottom of the stout Metropolitan Division, won a franchise-record 50 games and 108 points on the way to a third-place finish in the division behind Washington and Pittsburgh.

That’s 16 more wins and 32 points better than 2015-16. They were at the center of the hockey world at midseason when they had a 16-game winning streak, the second-longest streak in NHL history.

But the playoffs were a big disappointment. Columbus lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games in the first round.

Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky struggled to get saves at critical times as he had done all season.

“Last year sitting here you probably felt we had taken a step backward, and this year we can feel that we took two steps forward, maybe three,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen told reporters Monday.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed with the 4-1 exit from the playoffs,” he said. “(But) four out of five games we thought we were right there, neck to neck with the defending Stanley Cup champions.

“(We) out-chanced them, outshot them, didn’t get the result we wanted. We always try to look behind the results. There were games in that series where we played very well.”

Kekalainen said the organization will stick with its patient strategy of developing players from within. But also possible, he acknowledged, is a big trade or free-agent signing for another scorer who could get them over the hump.

“Do we look for somebody from the outside? Absolutely,” he said. “But we’re going to try to build it with the process in mind that we’ve talked about all along. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s make sure that everything makes sense in the long term as much as it does in the short term.”

Kekalainen and team president John Davidson said the team that lost to Pittsburgh in five games this season was better than the one eliminated by the Penguins 4-2 in 2014.

“I firmly believe in this group going forward,” Davidson said. “We’ve got a good base here, but we’ve gone through a lot of the transition of trying to build your own from within through the draft. I’m pretty positive about this.”

The players are disappointed but also optimistic about the future in Columbus. Everyone finished generally healthy, except for defenseman Markus Nutivaara, who needs hip surgery and four months of recovery.

Nineteen-year-old defenseman Zach Werenski, who took a puck in the face that fractured his cheekbone in a playoff game, is recovering and not expected to suffer any long-term effects.

“We’ve really just been a team that’s just trying to get to the playoffs,” captain Nick Foligno said Saturday when the team gathered for the last time.

“Now the mindset is how are we going to stay, how are we going to do well, how are we going to win? That’s what I’m most excited about is the growth and the mentality.”

Kekalainen is not worried about Bobrovsky, who had a .882 save percentage and a 3.88 goals-against average in the five playoff games after finishing the regular season among the league’s best with a .931 save percentage and 2.06 goals-against average. He’s a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.

“He knows he needs to be better in the playoffs,” Kekalainen said. “He will be better, I’m convinced. He’s that driven, he’s always looking for ways to get better.”

Nobody wants to get started with another season more than the 28-year-old Russian.

“It’s a tough way to finish the season,” he said. “It’s disappointing. But you have either success or experience. So this time, with this playoff, I had experience and I will learn from it and move on.”

PHT Morning Skate: Is it too early for the Caps and Pens to be meeting?

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–Here are NHL.com’s 10 storylines to keep an eye on in the second round of the playoffs. Obviously, Crosby vs. Ovechkin is up there, but so is a matchup between Jake Allen and Pekka Rinne (who would’ve thought). Both goalies were incredible in the first round.  (NHL.com)

–The Edmonton Oilers were able to knock off one team from California in the first round, and they’ll look to do the same in round two against Anaheim. The Edmonton Journal looks at eight positive and eight negatives for the Oilers going into the series. The Ducks are a little banged up right now, and the Oilers did pretty well against them during the regular season. On the downside, Anaheim is a deeper team, and they’re fully capable of playing a nasty brand of hockey. (Edmonton Journal)

–Former NHL goalie Corey Hirsch breaks down the five different types of playoff beards. No surprise that Joe Thornton and Brent Burns‘ beards find themselves in the “jumbo” category. (The Score)

–Everyone is looking forward to the series between the Pens and Caps, but is it too early for them to be playing each other? Washington Post writer Dan Steinberg isn’t impressed with the way the playoff format works. Steinberg writes: “The Caps and Penguins-the first- and second-best teams in the NHL- both won in the first round, and will face each other this week, starting Thursday night. Seven other teams finished with at least 100 points; four have been eliminated. And so the second-round matchups have all the logical consistency of a third-grader’s Pynchon plot diagram.” (Washington Post)

Mark Scheifele had some interesting things to say during a Q&A with Sportsnet. One of the things he touched on was the NHL deciding not to go to the Olympics. It’s safe to say he’s not a fan of the decision. “I look at it as it’s misrepresenting our sport. I think [Jonathan] Toews said that. The Olympics is a big honor, and for us to turn that honor down is junky.” (Sportsnet)

–The Hockey News’ roundtable looks at the four teams that should be most disappointed by their first-round exit from the playoffs. After finishing at the top of their respective divisions during the regular season, the Blackhawks and Canadiens being bounced early has to be incredibly difficult for each of those two markets. (The Hockey News)

It doesn’t sound promising for Matt Murray

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Matt Murray wasn’t available for the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Columbus Blue Jackets. If he ends up being an option vs. the Washington Capitals, it might not be for a while.

The Penguins provided a less-than-promising update on Monday: he hasn’t yet resumed skating.

Now, there is some time for him to even get ready by Game 1, as their second-round series doesn’t begin until Thursday.

Considering Washington’s firepower, it would be nice for the Penguins to have two championship goalies to choose from in case things get ugly, but at the moment it seems like it’s Marc-Andre Fleury or bust.

“MAF” has his critics, but his overall work was strong vs. Columbus.

He won four of five games, generating a fantastic .933 save percentage. That’s a promising start to the playoffs, providing some hope despite a shaky .907 career playoff save percentage and a middling regular season (18-10-7, .909 save percentage and 3.02 GAA).

The less-than-positive aspects of Fleury’s numbers make Murray’s continued injury issues more unsettling, but Pittsburgh will just need to hope for improvements.

Or for Fleury to remain at the top of his game.