In leading theRangers to a sweep of the Thrashers, goalie Henrik Lundqvist deserved to betreated like royalty
AMONG THE scoresof Swedish kings of the past 1,000 years, there have been Sverker the Older,Erik the Lisp and Lame, and six fellows named Gustav, but Rangers goaltenderHenrik Lundqvist is the first King Henrik. The title was bestowed by the NewYork Post following some spectacular performances early last season. In thisyear's playoffs, after allowing only six goals in New York's four-game rout ofthe Thrashers (the Rangers' first postseason series victory since 1997),Lundqvist has proved that he's worthy of the designation, but a lingeringquestion is the actual size of King Henrik's realm.
The NHL's mostunderrated goalie, Lundqvist might be the toast of Broadway—and, as Rangersgoaltending coach Beno√Æt Allaire contends, among the top five netminders in theleague—but at times he seems to be the No. 3 goalie in the metropolitan area.To the west is the Devils' Martin Brodeur, who is on his way to becoming thewinningest goalie in NHL history, and to the east is flamboyant Islandersgoalie-for-life Rick DiPietro, whose frenetic style sometimes gives him morethe appearance of a court jester.
Even against theThrashers, Lundqvist—just plain Hank to his teammates—didn't get as muchattention as counterpart Kari Lehtonen's electric-blue Mohawk or coach BobHartley's goalie merry-go-round of Lehtonen and Johan Hedberg. Lundqvist, wholed the NHL in save percentage (93.2%) and goals-against average (1.85) thefinal two months of the regular season, did nothing crazy except stop aformidable 93.9% of Atlanta's shots. "You rate guys over a career and abody of work," veteran Rangers winger Brendan Shanahan says. "But asfar as the present, he's playing as well as anybody I've ever playedwith."
The Rangers movedon to face the Sabres, who had the league's most prolific offense (3.63 goalsper game) during the regular season, and New York will again be forced to relyon its newly found commitment to team defense and Lundqvist. Lundqvist'sairtight opening-round performance stood in stark contrast to his first trip tothe NHL playoffs last spring, when the former Swedish Elite League MVP allowed13 goals in three games and missed a start (sore right hip flexor andmigraines) in the Rangers' first-round capitulation to the Devils. The stunningthing was not that Lundqvist was sidelined by headaches but that he confessedto them at a time of year when a player will show up in the dressing room in anankle cast and claim he is day-to-day with the flu. Despite backstopping Swedento an Olympic gold medal in Turin last year, the Rangers suspect job-relatedstress might have been involved. "There was some thought that a big gamefor him was a kind of tumultuous event," assistant general manager DonMaloney says. Lundqvist demurs, saying, "I wasn't that nervous."
Grinding histeeth at night may have contributed to Lundqvist's headaches, but medicationhas cleared up the problem. It was his pearly row of choppers that likelyhelped persuade PEOPLE magazine to feature Lundqvist in its 100 Most BeautifulPeople issue last year. Curiously, Lundqvist's identical twin brother, Joel,now a center on the Stars, didn't make the list. A smiling King Henrikattributes that fact to his maturity (he's 40 minutes older), but a more likelyexplanation is Joel was playing in Sweden last season—and everyone knows thereare no beautiful people in Sweden.
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Pierre McGuire's In the Crease
Perhaps the most unheralded player through the firstround of the playoffs is Sabres forward Jochen Hecht. Playing with DanielBri√®re and Jason Pominville, Hecht (above) is the defensive anchor that allowshis linemates to take offensive risks. Hecht, also a top penalty killer, wastraded by Edmonton to Buffalo for two second-round picks in 2002. Talk about abargain.... Do not be surprised to see former Flames general manager andcurrent Maple Leafs pro scout Craig Button emerge as the leading candidate forthe Blue Jackets' G.M. job, which opened up last week with the firing of DougMacLean. Button was director of player personnel on the Stars team that KenHitchcock—Columbus's current coach—led to a Stanley Cup in 1999.... The Devils'defense, already the best in the East before the playoffs, became even strongerwith the April 8 return of Richard Matvichuk, who missed all but oneregular-season game after back surgery. Matvichuk brings shot-blocking presenceand defensive awareness—and, according to general manager--coach LouLamoriello, he is in the best physical condition of his career. If New Jerseydefenseman Colin White, who has missed the last four games with a stiff back,returns for the second-round series against the Senators, Ottawa is in bigtrouble.
THING OF BEAUTY Lundqvist, who stopped 93 of Atlanta's 99 shots, was among PEOPLE'S best looking 100 last year.
DJAMILLA ROSA COCHRAN/WIREIMAGE.COM
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ED BETZ/AP (HECHT)