PHILADELPHIA — Henrik Lunqdvist is more than capable of being not only the best goalie on the ice or in a tournament but the best in the world. He showed that at the 2006 Turin Olympics in leading Sweden to a gold medal.
But Stanley Cup Playoff success has eluded Lundqvist and the New York Rangers, thanks in part to fatigue that has knocked the netminder off his game. The introspective and sharp Lundqvist knows when he’s got it and when he doesn’t.
“It’s so small, the difference between being great and just being OK,” Lundqvist said, pinching his fingers together. “It’s the small, small things, but in the end it will make the difference.”
All the small things includes playing less and ideally being more refreshed and ready to roll come playoff time. It has been a concerted effort this season by the Rangers and coach John Tortorella to lean more on backup Marty Biron with just that in mind.
“Our goal is to have a long and successful spring,” Lundqvist said. “It’s important, I think, for me to be in good shape and fresh going into April and hopefully May and June.”
Lundqvist will start Monday’s Winter Classic for the Rangers against the Philadelphia Flyers, a no-brainer for a guy who has played 68 or more games for five straight seasons. He’s the man in New York, and that’s not going to change.
“Are we going to split them and Hank play 40 and Marty play whatever? No,” Tortorella said. “We’re staying with how we want to go about this. Henrik is our No. 1 guy, but we’ve tried to do this now.”
What the Rangers are trying is a better split with Biron, widely considered one of the best backup goalies in the NHL.
“If you want to go the distance, I really believe that your goaltender’s in between that 60-62 mark as far as games,” Tortorella said.
Lundqvist is on board with the theory, even though he conceded it’s a major adjustment not to play as much. His own numbers bear plenty of evidence that he might have been playing too much in the regular season.
Lunqdvist’s career save percentage is .920 and goals-against average 2.29; in the playoffs, those numbers weaken to .909 and 2.60. It may not seem like a lot, but the goalie admitted a heavy load taking a toll and possibly contributing to early playoff exits.
“You look at the last probably 10 years, teams that have been winning, their starting goalie hasn’t been playing over 65 games. It’s been 50-60, maybe 65 tops,” Lundqvist said. “It’s a long season if you want to make it all the way.”
Lunqdvist has appeared in 27 of the Rangers’ 36 games so far, a healthy amount but much less than previous seasons. It has already paid off, as he is enjoying a sublime start: 16-7-4 with a 1.91 GAA and .937 save percentage.
“I can tell in December, usually — not beat up — but you can tell you’ve been playing a lot of hockey,” Lundqvist said. “Right now, I feel really fresh, and I’m excited to play. I think it helps my game.”
It doesn’t hurt that Biron has been rolling along, too: 7-2-0 with a 2.08 GAA and .923 save percentage, and that’s after a rough game against the Washington Capitals last week.
“I think this year, I think that we’ve been able to roll well,” said Biron, who’s in the second season of a two-year, $1.75 million contract. “Henrik and I now having played a whole year together, get to know one another better, get to know how we react to certain situations, how to help one another better. It’s been really good. The first season was beneficial to our second year right now.”
Biron was a starting goalie with the Buffalo Sabres and then the Flyers, and he admitted being a backup in it of itself has been a work in progress.
“The adjustment is not so much in the games as in the practice where your practices are your preparation for games,” Biron said. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve played a game that week coming up, or if you haven’t played for three weeks. Your preparation is not going to come through the games that you’ve played in; it comes from practice.”
Giving Biron more action was a plan Tortorella and the Rangers wanted last season. Then Biron suffered a fractured collarbone, forcing Lunqdvist to play every game the final 2 ½ months of the season. The Caps beat New York in five games in the first round of the playoffs.
“It didn’t work out,” Lundqvist admitted.
But by taking some of the load off the shoulders of “King Henrik,” the Rangers hope the result is different this time around.
“Maybe he isn’t as sharp as he is in certain situations of the game because he’s just not fresh enough because he’s played too many games at a certain time,” Tortorella said. “There’s no scientific dead-on answer, but I just feel this is the proper thing to do with our goaltenders and for our team to try to project it to the big picture.”
The Rangers want that big picture to include the Stanley Cup.