Lundqvist key to Rangers' playoff hopes

The Rangers will rely heavily upon All-Star goalie The Rangers will rely heavily upon All-Star goalie Henrik Lundqvist during their first-round series with the favored Capitals. (Apr. 9, 2011) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- On Saturday evening, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist thought Monday's visit to the MSG Training Center would include year-end physicals and farewells.

"I thought the season was over," said Lundqvist, who had joined teammates to watch the telecast of the Tampa Bay-Carolina game. If Carolina won, the Blueshirts would miss the playoffs for a second consecutive year.

"It was stressful and painful," he said, "really tough to watch. Even though Tampa was up early, I felt something bad was going to happen."

But the Lightning prevailed, 6-2, giving the Rangers new life and a second season that starts Wednesday night against the Capitals in Washington.

"It was just a great feeling," Lundqvist said after practice Monday. "You start thinking about how much work you put in during the last six months. To miss the playoffs is such an empty feeling. Now it's a great challenge for us. We're going to work hard and do our best to have a successful, long spring. "

It's no secret that any success rides with Lundqvist, the team MVP again, who earned 30-plus wins (36) for the sixth consecutive season and led the NHL in shutouts (11) and road wins (20).

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But Lundqvist, a Vezina Trophy finalist for three consecutive years, did not get past the second round in his previous five seasons as a Ranger, a trend the 29-year-old Swede is longing to change.

"Hank's tasting it," said John Tortorella, whose plans to rest Lundqvist worked splendidly until Martin Biron broke his collarbone Feb. 28. Lundqvist has since played in 26 straight games, with rookie Chad Johnson relieving him only once, and the Rangers closed on an 11-4-1 run.

Monday, Johnson had mixed emotions about his first playoffs. "I'd love to get in," he said, "but obviously, I really hope I don't." That's because his presence in net would mean Lundqvist was less than his All-Star self, or injured.

Lundqvist said he has learned critical lessons during the playoffs. "It's important to try to move on after a game," he said. "I think that's a key; whatever happens, you have to let it go right away to prepare for the next one."

In 2006, the Devils swept the Rangers. "My first year wasn't very good," he said. "I didn't feel well [migraines] and had a tough time focusing, so I try not to look at the numbers too much. But I'm feeling pretty good right now."

In 2007 and 2008, the Rangers endured second-round losses, to Buffalo in six games and Pittsburgh in five. In 2009, they lost to the Capitals, 2-1, in Game 7 of the conference quarterfinals.

This spring, the Caps, who lost three of four to the Rangers this season, are the No. 1 seed in the East. "The standings don't lie," Lundqvist said. "We shouldn't think or change too much. You just have to raise the levels: preparation, focus, how hard we play.

"I don't think there's any surprises now. They play a more defensive style, but they still have a couple of the best offensive guys in the league and their power play is always good . . . It's going to be a battle."

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