Henrik Lundqvist is backbone of Rangers' Cup quest

Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers makes

Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers makes a save against the Dallas Stars. (Dec. 13, 2011) (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

GREENBURGH, N.Y.

In offseasons at home in Gothenburg, Henrik Lundqvist often joins Daniel Alfredsson, a teammate on the Swedish National team, for summer workouts.

Wednesday, the Rangers goalie learned that Alfredsson, the 39-year-old Ottawa Senators forward, was going to text him to wish him well in the first-round playoff series between the Rangers and Senators that begins Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.

"This series, we're not friends," Lundqvist said, flashing a smile while he peeled off his equipment at his locker. "Well, if he wished me good luck, I might text him good luck back . . . but I wouldn't mean it."

The take on his friend's text message is another indication of the ultracompetitive nature of the Rangers goaltender, now married and age 30, who is beginning a seventh quest for the Stanley Cup.

"So far, I've only been to the second round once here [in 2007]," said Lundqvist, who has often mentioned that he feels like an elder statesman on this young, hungry club. "Playing in Europe, by winning championships there, that's a great feeling, that's what motivates you a lot of mornings."

Lundqvist, a perennial Vezina Trophy candidate as the best goaltender in the NHL, finished the regular season with a career-high 39 wins, and a microscopic goals-against-average of 1.97 in 62 games as the Rangers vaulted to the top of the Eastern Conference with 51 wins and 109 points.

"Going into the season, I was prepared to have a good year," he said. "I skated more last summer, because I knew we'd travel a lot [in Europe and on the West Coast while the Garden was being renovated] in the beginning of the season. When you're winning, you enjoy everything. It's been a fun year and now it's time to try step it up and push ourselves even more."

In the playoffs, when, as Rangers coach John Tortorella says, a player's career is defined, Lundqvist will prepare the same way: with extreme focus on game day, not talking to teammates, sticking to time-tested routines. "I try not to change anything," he said. "I've had the same preparation for over 10 years now, whether it's an exhibition game, playoff or regular season, I try to have the same feeling going in."

And don't think players don't notice, or appreciate, the mindset. "He's been the same all year. But I think he has more confidence, and there's so much passion," Artem Anisimov said. "He didn't even want you to score on him in practice on a rebound in training camp."

Tortorella, who is in his third full season behind the Rangers' bench, has tried to rest Lundqvist for these critical games in April, and hopefully May and June, by deploying backup Martin Biron 20 times during the season. The coach is lavish in his compliments.

"He is the backbone of our team, always has been," Tortorella said. "He is one of the strongest competitors that I've seen as an athlete. Sometimes as a goalie, you don't see it. With him you do." He compared him to Nikolai Khabibulin, the netminder who backstopped Tortorella's Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup championship in 2004.

"Henrik's improved all year," he said. "Nik played his best hockey during that Stanley Cup run. With Nik, though, it's more of a quiet confidence."

Not that Lundqvist is a rah-rah guy. He extols the virtue of his defense-first team and when asked about his appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week and any accompanying jinx, Lundqvist shrugged. "It's only on the East Coast," he said. "Bubba's [Watson, Masters champ] on the rest."

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