Game 7 can be Henrik Lundqvist's defining moment
Arthur StapleArthur Staple
Staple, with Newsday since 1997, has covered high school
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Henrik Lundqvist needs this one Saturday night.
All the Rangers need this Game 7, of course. They were the best team in the Eastern Conference this season, the hardest-working team, and although they have played more games than in any postseason since 1997, a loss to the Capitals at Madison Square Garden would leave John Tortorella's club feeling empty.
Most of all, though, Lundqvist needs a win. He is at the apex of his career right now, almost certain to rake in at least one award next month from among the Vezina and Hart Trophies, for which he's a finalist. By the time his current contract is up after the 2013-14 season, he'll be the winningest goaltender in team history. No Ranger is more important to the team's success.
But for all Lundqvist's accomplishments, the big playoff win has eluded him. He won a Game 7 for the first time 16 days ago over the Senators, a 2-1 triumph in which he was his usual stellar self. A win Saturday night, though, would mean something entirely new.
Lundqvist has backstopped three Rangers appearances in the Eastern Conference semifinals, including this series. He hasn't been closer to advancing to a conference final than this, and his 22-26 postseason record is far from that of a future Hall of Famer.
"You have to keep the past away from you at times like this," Lundqvist told me in a quiet moment before Game 6 in Washington.
He had a chance to make some personal history Wednesday, but an early goal put his team down and the Rangers couldn't recover.
"Maybe there are times you think about that," he said, referring to a chance to go beyond the second round, "but not now. We had some good teams [in 2007 and 2008], but I think we're a better team now. That's a positive."
And Lundqvist is a better goaltender. As even as this series has been, as surprisingly calm and impressive as rookie goalie Braden Holtby has been, he has given up some stoppable goals. But it's hard to think of one that Lundqvist whiffed on.
Lundqvist has been as steady as he was in leading the Rangers to the best record in the East with a 1.73 goals-against average, second only to the Kings' Jonathan Quick (1.55). He's also 4-1 after a loss this postseason, if that means anything in a momentum-less series.
Lundqvist has learned how to handle the big moments in his seven seasons. Getting a Game 7 win has helped. "You try not to build it up too much," he said. "I remember the feeling I had before [the win over Ottawa]. You go out with the same mind-set, you don't change anything. That's what I try to remember. But starting [Saturday], all the focus is on this game, nothing else."
He has experienced the last-game lows, from his first Game 7 loss -- by 2-1 to these Capitals in Washington in 2009 -- to losing a shootout to the Flyers as the Rangers were eliminated on the final day of the regular season in 2010.
This season has produced many more highs for the Rangers' MVP. He needs one more Saturday night to truly become one of the greats.