Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

Henrik Lundqvist sat at his locker one morning last week with his leg pads laid out directly in front of him and politely asked reporters to avoid stepping on them while asking questions.

The scene caused me to flash back to the 1990s and another Garden star, Patrick Ewing, whose long legs would stretch out before him, knees wrapped in ice, and forever get in the way when reporters crowded around him after games.

Tensions regularly ensued, especially after losses.

The memory also prompted this question: Is Lundqvist headed down a legacy path similar to Ewing's?

Not if the Rangers win the Stanley Cup, which would ensure that when he takes off his blue shirt for good, he will be celebrated around here the way Mark Messier and his 1994 pals still are.

But if they do not, this June or sometime soon, King Henrik merely will be another New York great with an asterisk.

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Unfair? Just ask Ewing about that. He was not as well-liked by fans during his playing days as Lundqvist is now, and only in retrospect has he been given the respect he deserves.

But even now that most fans appreciate what he did, he remains forever a notch below Walt Frazier, Willis Reed and their teammates in the Knicks pantheon because of his ring-less fingers.

Like it or not, the meter now is running on Lundqvist, who at 33 should have several good seasons left in him but has more seasons in his past than his future.

Ewing's best chance for a championship, in 1994, came in his ninth season in the NBA. Lundqvist's best chance so far came last June, in his ninth season in the NHL.

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Now he is back at it, with a Presidents' Trophy on his resume and a team that views him as its if-all-else-fails reason for realistic Cup dreams.

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That was evident in Game 2 against the Capitals on Saturday, when Lundqvist did his thing, most notably on a sprawling save against Washington's Evgeny Kuznetsov.

"He was the best player on the ice, same guy that we see every game," Derick Brassard said. "He was pretty [expletive] off after Game 1 . . . I thought he played like he was [expletive] off."

It is not often that Lundqvist allows others to see him angry, but he didn't hide it after a last-second 2-1 loss in Game 1.

Saturday's 3-2 victory restored order and left the NHL's best road team confident entering two games in Washington, the first of which will be Lundqvist's 100th career playoff appearance.

And even if the Rangers lose Game 3, there will be reason for optimism.

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The Rangers' postgame notes Saturday included this nugget: In the past four playoff springs, Lundqvist is 18-10 with a 1.79 goals-against average, a .936 save percentage and four shutouts in games following a Rangers loss.

Remember before the playoffs began when everyone wondered how missing two months with an injury would affect Lundqvist -- and whether the slightest glitch would put pressure on Alain Vig- neault to yank Hank for backup Cam Talbot?

There is not much talk of that anymore. The Rangers are all in with Lundqvist. Whether that will be enough to win it all remains to be seen, but it is the King's quest to lead.

Time eventually ran out on Ewing, whose Knicks made it back to the Finals in 1999, a series he missed because of injury. The Rangers have little time to waste on Lundqvist's clock to ride him to a Cup. No time like the present.