Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - History, common sense and the law of averages suggest that Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers will not allow six goals Friday night against the thundering Lightning in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Rangers haven't allowed six goals in three consecutive playoff games since the 1932 Stanley Cup Final, when the Maple Leafs won the last three games of a best-of-five series. John Ross Roach played in goal for the Rangers. One of Roach's nicknames was "The Port Perry Cucumber," which does not have quite the ring that "King Henrik" has. But the way things are going, Lundqvist's customary cucumber-like coolness is being tested as rarely before.
He appeared stunned Wednesday night as he sat at his locker after a 6-5 overtime loss in Game 3, receiving whispered words, presumably of encouragement, from general manager Glen Sather and then speaking barely above a whisper to reporters.
After explaining that he was late picking up the puck on Nikita Kucherov's soft game-winner, he said, "As a team, we need to be a little bit better, but also I have to be better, because we're not going to win if I give up six goals."
The challenge is more than figuring out a way to slow down the Lightning, which has 28 goals in six regular-season and postseason games against the Rangers. It also is to overcome the psychological hurdle of knowing their longtime fail-safe suddenly isn't so safe against this particular opponent, and to admit that he is struggling to solve the Bolts' many weapons.
Lundqvist was not among the three players chosen to speak to reporters Thursday at the team hotel, but those who did -- and coach Alain Vigneault -- insisted their faith in him has not wavered.
Asked if he plans to start Lundqvist in Game 4, Vigneault seemed confused or bemused or both. "Is that a question?" he asked. "Hank's the guy."
When Vigneault was asked for an assessment of Lundqvist's play in Game 3, he did not offer any specifics but did answer in a way that acknowledged it was not his best night.
"Hank would be the first to say to you that six goals against is very uncharacteristic. The number of games that he's played for the Rangers, he's been, on most nights, one of their top players," he said.
"He's going to get ready for tomorrow night and he's going to try to have a real good game."
Well, that's good to know! What about Lundqvist saying he's having trouble with the lightning-quick Lightning and the open ice created in front of him? "It's his assessment of his play," Vigneault said. "I'm not a goaltender. I do know that Hank is very accountable, very demanding on himself. He is going to do what any good goaltender does. He is going to put last night's game behind and he is going to get ready for tomorrow.''
Before Game 2, Lundqvist's goals-against average was 1.56 and his save percentage was .945. Two games later, those figures are 2.12 and .926.
Of course, if the Rangers play defense in front of him the way they did in Game 3, there will not be much Lundqvist can do no matter how well he plays.
"We won the Presidents' Trophy this year by playing good defense, and we haven't given our goalie a chance to be successful the past two games," Derick Brassard said Thursday. True.
Said Derek Stepan: "I think we have to do a better job protecting Hank." True.
But a team as potent as the Lightning will generate chances no matter what the Rangers do, so they need The King to play at his usual level, and perhaps even higher, now more than ever.
Is that a question?