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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.”