By Sean Hartnett
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Henrik Lundqvist was already the generational goaltender of his era, the all-time winningest European netminder and the only goalie in NHL history to record 20 wins in each of his first 12 seasons. The shot-stopping Swede added another impressive feather to his cap Saturday by becoming the fastest netminder in league history to reach 400 wins.
By defeating the Colorado Avalanche 4-2, Lundqvist reached the milestone in 727 games, albeit with shootout wins inflating his total. That's quicker than the likes of Martin Brodeur, Chris Osgood, Jacques Plante and Patrick Roy. His affinity with Rangers fans has never been in doubt. Madison Square Garden roared louder and louder with chants of "Hen-rik, Hen-rik" as the minutes ticked down. Some fans paid upward of $130 on ticket resale websites to ensure they could witness history.
"I'm going to tell you that last couple minutes you hear the crowd, you get goosebumps, and it was just like my first game here when they chanted my name," Lundqvist said following the victory. "Winning at MSG, the crowd is really into it, and it's just the best feeling. That's why you go to work every morning and try to improve your game."
The 34-year-old was desperate to accomplish the feat on home ice in front of the fans who have always offered unwavering support throughout his 12-year career. Alternate captain Derek Stepan revealed after the victory that Lundqvist willed teammates to get the job done by offering a stirring second intermission speech as the Rangers trailed 2-1 heading into the third period.
"He said, 'We're not losing this game,'" Stepan said. "He answered the bell in the third. That's what good leaders do, and I've been around for a lot of those from him."
Then Stepan best summed up Lundqvist's career to date.
"Since I've been here, he's been our best player every single year," Stepan said. "To get a milestone like that, I know it means a lot to him. Our group is really happy for him. He competes every single day, and that's what it takes to have success in this league. It's really cool to see and I'm happy for him."
Throughout his career, Lundqvist has pushed the Blueshirts beyond preseason expectations by pulling out victories they had no business winning through resolute netminding under the heaviest of pressure.
Yet "King Henrik" was oddly snubbed when the NHL unveiled its 100 greatest players in league history as part of 2017 All-Star festivities in Los Angeles. Jaromir Jagr, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith were chosen to represent the current generation – yet there was a gaping hole given that Lundqvist's accomplishments compare favorably to Roy, Brodeur and perhaps the greatest netminder of all-time in Dominik Hasek.
It's the lack-of-Cup thing, isn't it? Well, Lundqvist never had the fortune of having an all-time defensive pairing playing in front of him like Brodeur had for 11 seasons in Hall of Famers Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer. Brodeur secured three Stanley Cups during the Devils' 1995-2003 dynasty years, but the champagne and Meadowlands parking lot parades dried up after Stevens retired following the 2004-05 lockout and Niedermayer bolted for Anaheim in the same summer.
Roy began his first full season with the 1986 Stanley Cup-winning Montreal Canadiens as a 20-year-old with Hall of Famers Chris Chelios and Larry Robinson patroling the blue line. While his overtime heroics would win him a second Cup as a Hab in 1993, he would lift Lord Stanley on two more occasions on dominant Avalanche teams. All-time great centers in Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic ushered in the franchise's first championship in 1996, and legendary defensemen Ray Bourque and Rob Blake joined to help propel Roy to a fourth career Stanley Cup in 2001.
Hasek is arguably the greatest to play the position – but even he needed an incredible surrounding cast of Detroit Red Wings to lift his first Stanley Cup in 2002. Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Pavel Datsyuk and Chelios led the way on a robust roster. It's unlikely that Hasek would have raised the Cup had he spent his final years in Buffalo. Had that been the case, in no way would it have diminished Hasek's reputation.
It's time to re-examine Lundqvist's legacy. He's never played with a slam-dunk Hall of Fame defenseman. Dan Boyle is on the Hall of Fame bubble and only joined Lundqvist for his final two seasons, starting at age 38. Lundqvist did spend his first three seasons with the incredible production of Jagr, but those Rangers teams lacked the firepower to go beyond the Eastern Conference semifinal. He didn't quite have the best version of Brad Richards when the Rangers were bested in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals by Brodeur. The introduction of Martin St. Louis helped sparked a rally to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, but the Los Angeles Kings possessed more game-changers and difference-makers.
When the Rangers ended their 54-year Cup drought in 1994, Conn Smythe winner Brian Leetch recorded 34 points in 23 playoff games. Captain Mark Messier supplied incredible drive and 30 playoff points. Leetch, Messier, the timeliness of Stephane Matteau, the heart of Adam Graves and a pair of Russian aces in Alex Kovalev and Sergei Zubov helped clutch netminder Mike Richter ascend the throne as the greatest Rangers goaltender since Garden idol and Hall of Famer Ed Giacomin.
Lundqvist is yet to have the supporting cast needed to attain that elusive Stanley Cup ring. He's played his entire career with surrounding talent limited by the salary cap era. When it's all said and done, the Swede could conceivably pass Roy's 551 wins and finish only behind Brodeur's record 691 victories.
Through 90 seasons, the Rangers have been blessed to have many legendary players pull on their historic sweater, including Messier, Leetch, the great Rod Gilbert and the gentlemanly Andy Bathgate. Whether he gets that Cup or not, Lundqvist's consistent excellence could put him at the top of the list when he decides to call it a day.
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