'Rangers Inside And Out'
By Sean Hartnett
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Ten years have passed since beloved New York Rangers goaltender Mike Richter officially retired from the NHL. On September 5, 2003, an emotional Richter bid farewell to the game he loved -- waving goodbye to only franchise he ever represented.
At 36, Richter's career was prematurely cut short due to a severe concussion sustained against Edmonton on November 5, 2002. It would be the final time that Richter would entertain his legion of fans at "The World's Most Famous Arena." Over the summer of '03, Richter learned that his history of concussions meant he had no choice but to extinguish his competitive fire, and walk away from hockey.
The will to fight on was clearly evident, but his body would not allow him continue standing between the pipes at Madison Square Garden.
Richter had made No. 35 his own. His jersey would be the third in franchise history to be raised to the Garden rafters.
A distraught Mark Messier couldn't hold back his emotions while tribute videos played during the press conference. The iconic captain of the Rangers had to leave the room as he tears streamed down his face.
''That was a tough one,'' Messier told the New York Times in 2003. ''It was a tough day for everybody. I can speak for every Ranger fan, and every hockey fan, especially in New York, that it was a tough day in New York.''
Even though Richter's storied career ended years too soon, he reached hockey's mountaintop in 1994 by guiding the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years. Alongside a group of impassioned teammates, Richter played a huge role in burying more than a half-decade of frustrations by raising his game to superhuman levels during the 1994 playoffs.
Richter posted four shutouts along the way to immortality. He was the steady backbone of the Blueshirts' incredible run. Conn Smythe winner Brian Leetch, heroic captain Mark Messier, cult favorite Adam Graves, unexpected idol Stephane Matteau and the unflappable Richter had etched their names into New York sports lore. The jeering "1940″ chants were silenced outside of Graves playfully yelling it into TV cameras after the Rangers' Game 7 triumph.
LUNDQVIST MUST ESCAPE RICHTER'S SHADOW
From that point on, Madison Square Garden has gone dark outside of John Tortorella's 2011-12 team coming tantalizingly close to reaching the Stanley Cup Final. Adam Henrique's Game 6 overtime winner at Prudential Center sent the Rangers back across the Hudson with feelings of emptiness after what appeared to be a season of destiny.
No Ranger was more upset than goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. The shocked Swede stood in disbelief and visibly cried while Prudential Center exploded into wild celebrations.
Lundqvist would probably trade in all of his endorsement deals, give away closets full of designer suits and hand over the keys to his Maserati in an instant if it meant he could take one sip from Lord Stanley's Cup.
His No. 30 has become as sacred as Richter's 35. Lundqvist has captured the hearts of the Garden faithful. Every move he makes his backed by a chorus of boisterous Rangers fans chanting "Hen-rik, Hen-rik." He displays equal measures combativeness, focus and grace between the pipes as Richter who came before him.
There's only one thing missing -- a famous photo of Lundqvist raising the Stanley Cup over his head on top of a tour bus down "The Canyon Of Heroes."
In all likelihood, Lundqvist will be rewarded with a fresh long-term extension from the Rangers before the start of the 2013-14 season. The Rangers will be essentially tying their future to their franchise goaltender.
The upcoming season could be the turning point of Lundqvist's celebrated career. All the stars are aligning for a run at the Stanley Cup. There is fresh optimism under new head coach Alain Vigneault. Star sniper Rick Nash has gotten used to the taste of The Big Apple after one season under his belt in New York.
Dependable defenseman Marc Staal has recovered from a scary eye injury that caused him to miss all but one game during the 2013 NHL playoffs. A talented young core is lead by rock-solid defenseman Ryan McDonagh and flourishing center Derek Stepan.
Despite the talent being evenly spread across the Rangers' roster, it all comes down to the man wearing No. 30 on his back.
This could the year that Lundqvist breaks free of comparisons to great players in each of the four major sports that never won that elusive title such as Dan Marino, Patrick Ewing, Ted Williams and Marcel Dionne.
It's easy to forget that Lundqvist won the Gold medal for Sweden at the 2006 Turin Olympics. Lundqvist posted a 5-1 record, while only allowing 12 goals against on the pressured Olympic stage.
We all know what Lundqvist is capable of when he enters that unbeatable zone.
Tears of disappointment could turn to tears of ecstatic joy for Lundqvist when the Stanley Cup playoffs roll around in 2014. It could be the magical season when he silences his critics just like Lebron James did when he transformed his legacy as a member of the Miami Heat in 2012.
This might be the year when "King Henrik" finally earns his crown and looks back fondly at his own storybook season that mirrors that of Richter's legend-affirming year of 1994.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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