NEW YORK —When Henrik Lundqvist first met Robin Lehner nearly 20 years ago, neither of them gave a passing thought that one day they would face one another in the NHL.
As Lundqvist worked with Michael Lehner, a goaltending coach in Sweden, he got to know Robin and began tracking his career, even with a nine-year age difference between the two.
“He had big dreams but he also understood it’s a long road ahead to make it,” Lundqvist said of his Winter Classic counterpart of Sunday. “I was playing pro at the time and now 16 years later you get this opportunity to play against him at the Winter Classic. I’m really happy for him. He worked really hard to get where he is today.”
Lehner got to see plenty of Lundqvist in net while watching his hometown team, Frolunda, in the Swedish Hockey League. He got to see up close, thanks to his dad, the work Lundqvist put in to help him become successful once he made the jump to the NHL.
“He’s a great guy,” said Lehner. “It’ll be fun playing against him. I think he is the best goalie that Sweden has ever had and it is always fun to play against that team because they are always a good team. It’s going to be a real fun experience.”
Even after Lundqvist joined the New York Rangers, he kept tabs on Lehner’s progress, from the Ottawa Senators to his current club, the Buffalo Sabres. He’s been able to witness his evolution into a regular NHL starter, one who’s playing some of the best hockey of his career, despite his team’s failings.
“His biggest strength in my opinion is how hard he competes. And he’s a big guy, he uses [his size] really well,” Lundqvist said. “You see a lot of guys now with size and the guys that are using it well and move well on their feet, they’re going to get opportunity to stop the puck.
“I think that’s what he’s doing — using his size and his quickness and the way he competes. Add all that together you’re going to get some results.”
More 2018 Winter Classic coverage:
• Sabres’ Jason Pominville ready for third outdoor game experience
• Mike Emrick on calling the first Winter Classic, his favorite outdoor game venues (PHT Q&A)
• Sabres hoping to use Winter Classic to jump-start positive second half
• Rangers, Sabres prepared for cold, windy Winter Classic conditions
• Kevin Shattenkirk looking to be more than ‘work in progress’ with Rangers
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.