Once again, every puck stops with Henrik Lundqvist
Exasperation was so thick at Madison Square Garden early in the second period that thousands of fans spontaneously began chanting "Shoot the puck!" It is worth noting that they never came close to shouting, in unison, "Stop the puck!'' That was all taken care of.
Henrik Lundqvist made sure that the real and enduring exasperation in Game 6 Sunday was inside the head of every Capitals player. The star of this Rangers era was the star of the 1-0 game. He was perfect when he could not afford to be anything less.
The first rule of thumb in hockey is that goaltending trumps everything else. The second rule is that a team needs a goalie who is not bothered by rule one.
You can make a case that a hockey goalie is the most responsible position in any major team sport, or at least in the same conversation as a quarterback (a baseball starting pitcher goes out there only once every five days). A goalie can lift an inferior team, and doom a good one.
Consider the Islanders-Penguins series, which ended Saturday night. Despite the fact that there were superstars, all-stars and solid young players all over the ice, it all came down to the goalies. The Penguins found one, Tomas Vokoun, who could save the day, so to speak. The Islanders lost in six mostly because Evgeni Nabokov did not have a single stellar game.
When you have a team as offensively challenged as the Rangers, your goalie is by far the most important fellow in the arena. Sunday, he kept the heat off high-paid slumping forwards Rick Nash and Brad Richards. Heck, he is keeping the pressure off coach John Tortorella, who, for all his bravado, has been unable to figure a way to get his big stars going.
"When you have a solid guy like that behind you, you have confidence. You see that all over the ice,'' said Mats Zuccarello, who assisted on the only goal of the game. "When you have a guy playing like that, one goal is enough. It's a good feeling to have.''
Lundqvist had been the king of exasperation after the Game 5 overtime loss. As he skated off, he slammed his stick on the boards. On Saturday, though, he was over it, insisting he planned to actually enjoy Game 6.
"You say it. You want to enjoy it, but it's intense,'' he said Sunday. "There's a lot of pressure. There are moments during the game where you almost have to pinch yourself and you try to enjoy that. And then there are moments when you feel like, 'What is this? Why am I in this position?' But it's fun.''
He was not tested consistently, and the Capitals did not have one power play. In an odd way, that only ratcheted up the pressure for moments such as the one late in the second period, when Alex Ovechkin was bearing down on him with a head of steam. Lundqvist stoned him, the signature save of the 27 in his seventh career shutout.
"I try to be on him in practice and stuff so he stays focused all the time. So I take a little bit of credit for his good play today,'' Zuccarello said with a sly grin. When asked if Lundqvist has raised his game to a new level, the teammate added, "I don't think he can get any higher.''
Maybe, maybe not. Lundqvist has a losing playoff record (28-33) and never has won the Stanley Cup. "You need to go through these type of situations to get there,'' Tortorella said.
One thing was certain Sunday: Lundqvist is the most valuable Ranger. He was perfect when he had to be. And he made the fans forget about imploring tentative shooters. At the end of the game, their only chant was "Hen-reeeeek!"