GREENBURGH, N.Y. â€” After struggling through a subpar season by his standards, Henrik Lundqvist was at his best when the Rangers needed him in the first round.
The 35-year-old goalie will again have to be at the top of his game against Ottawa for New York to reach the Eastern Conference finals for the fourth time in six years.
“Hank has been through this before,” coach Alain Vigneault said Tuesday after the Rangers began preparing to face the Senators in the conference semifinals.
“I think he’s really thriving on the pressure and the opportunity. … He wants to be a difference-maker and he’s looking forward to this series.”
This season, Lundqvist had to deal with periods of inconsistency â€” highlighted by winning a season-high five straight starts Feb. 2-11 and then losing three of five from Feb. 26 to March 7 before a hip injury cost him nearly three weeks.
He then won just once in six starts (1-3-2) after returning in late March and finished the season 31-20-4 with a 2.74 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage â€” career worsts for the latter two.
However, since the playoffs started he has been sharp, getting his 10th career post-season shutout in the opener against Montreal and then finishing with a career-high 54 saves â€” regular season or playoffs â€” in an overtime loss in Game 2.
Lundqvist finished the first round with a 1.70 GAA and .947 save percentage. He gave up just four goals on 88 shots while the Rangers won the last three games of the series after allowing seven goals on 87 shots in losses in Games 2 and 3.
“The guys played so hard with a lot of structure in front and made it so much easier for me to focus on my game and try to do my part,” said Lundqvist, who has 2.25 GAA and .923 save percentage in 122 post-season games.
“It was a great feeling to see the way we worked, especially the way we battled back the last couple games.”
He had a big save in the clinching Game 6 win against Montreal with the Rangers leading by one and less than two minutes remaining, making a lunging pad stop on Tomas Plekanec’s backhand follow attempt in close.
“I knew I was in trouble because I wasn’t in good position on the first play and then he threw it at me,” Lundqvist said. “My first thought was ‘don’t knock it in,’ and then it ends up right on his stick. It was just a desperation save. Luckily he didn’t put it far corner.”
Now, he’ll be going up against an Ottawa team lead by former teammate Derick Brassard (two goals, six assists in first-round win against Boston), Bobby Ryan (four goals, three assists) and fellow Swede Erik Karlsson (six assists).
“They have some key players in their core group that play a big part for their team,” Lundqvist said. “When you watch them play, it’s a lot of tight game (and) strike when they get a chance.”
Lundqvist knows how tough his good friend Karlsson is to contain. The defenceman and team captain has topped 50 assists and 70 points in three of the past four seasons.
“You can stop him, you just got to be really good,” Lundqvist said. “You got to have a game plan and follow that. He’s definitely one of the best players in the game, and he plays a big part for them to have success. He’s a good skater, sees the game really well.”
Karlsson, in turn, believes the key to beating Lundqvist is to frustrate him.
“We’re going to have to make it hard on him,” Karlsson told The Canadian Press in Ottawa. “If he sees the puck he’s going to make most of the stops and we’re going to make it hard in front of him by putting a lot of traffic in there and throw a lot of pucks at him. The more shots we have the more opportunities we’re going to have for one to go in.”
Game 1 is Thursday night in Ottawa.
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Vin A. Cherwoo, The Associated Press