Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.
PITTSBURGH — Henrik Lundqvist often needs a few minutes to gather his thoughts before addressing reporters following a tough loss.
And so it was Saturday, as he stared blankly into space, goalie pads still on and baseball cap pulled low after the Rangers’ season-ending, 6-3 loss to the Penguins at Consol Energy Center.
What was different on this occasion was that he had had 20 extra minutes — in hockey time — to ponder what went wrong after coach Alain Vigneault mercifully replaced him with Antti Raanta for the third period.
It was the second game in a row King Henrik did not make it to the third and the second in a row in which the Penguins overwhelmed the Rangers en route to a five-game romp in the teams’ first-round playoff series.
The sight of Lundqvist giving up 10 goals in 41 shots in the last two games and the sound of Penguins fans mocking him with “Hen-rik, Hen-rik” chants illustrated as well as anything a postseason gone awry.
There was no ignoring the bigger picture at play, which is that Lundqvist now has watched another season go by without hoisting the Stanley Cup, his biological clock ticking louder and louder.
But he was not yet ready to put it all in career context. He was too busy beating himself up over not doing more to stem the Penguins’ tide.
“The last two I didn’t have it in me to make the difference,” he said, lamenting that in games in which the Penguins created many chances in front of the net, “You need a goaltender who is going to make a lot of big, extra saves, and I was not able to come up with that.”
Essentially, Lundqvist said that every time he zigged, the Penguins zagged.
“For some reason, sometimes you took a step on a guy that went across, sometimes you stayed deep and they came in with a lot of time,” he said. “You need to be extremely confident as a goalie to be able to stop those types of shots and these last two games I wasn’t strong enough to do that.”
Lundqvist acknowledged his teammates complicity, saying, “The way we gave up chances it’s going to be tough to win games. That’s my opinion. But like I already said, when you do give up chances like that you have to be on your toes. You have to play a really strong game to come up with the saves.”
He called the Penguins’ four-goal second period “a feeling of embarrassment” and “a sense of hopelessness.”
Then Vigneault benched him, as he should have out of respect for Lundqvist — as well as out of common human decency.
“It was definitely not a good feeling,” he said of being yanked, “and then to sit in the third and think about what went wrong.”
Lundqvist said he will need time to analyze this. But after winning three playoff rounds in 2014 and two in 2015, the Rangers won none in 2016 and face many difficult offseason questions.
The goalie is not one of them, for now. But he will be 35 when the 2017 playoffs begin — assuming the Rangers are in them.
“I think we played a team that was smarter, better and better goaltending,” said Lundqvist, whose Pittsburgh counterparts, Jeff Zatkoff and Matt Murray, entered the series with no playoff experience.
Now it was time for the final question of his final, painful postgame interview of 2015-16, so I asked whether he believed he really had a chance on some of the crafty Penguins’ scoring plays — which he clearly did not.
He said that when a goalie is at the top of his game, he sometimes can stop the seemingly unstoppable.
“I don’t know if it would have been enough, but I felt like the last two games here I just didn’t have it in me to make a difference, and that’s painful,” he said.
“That’s my job — to try to make the difference there. When you’re not able to do it, it’s frustrating and disappointing. You take it hard.”