GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Heartbroken and sleepless, Henrik Lundqvist still is ready to take on the world. After a couple of restless nights following the Rangers’ staggering playoff ouster, he announced that he will leave Friday for Paris to join Team Sweden at the World Championships. “There’s definitely gas left in the tank,” he said in the locker room on breakup day. “I was hoping to play for another month.”
But the Rangers will not play again until the fall. Between now and then, the franchise will face hard questions about just how much gas the team has left in the tank, or whether there was enough there to begin with. Those questions, like everything else in the Rangers’ solar system, revolve around the Hall of Fame-bound goalie.
One more year has passed without a Stanley Cup for a team that has won only one in the past 77 years. Lundqvist, at 35, is not getting any younger and the rest of the team, judging by the way it played in the six-game loss to the Senators, is not getting better. So now what?
Lundqvist does not have the answers. He said he tossed and turned, thinking about how he could have been better. The only thing that appeared clear to him was a calling to play some more hockey, right away.
He will jump into the ongoing tournament in France (where Islanders Brock Nelson and Anders Lee had two goals and one, respectively, in a U.S. win over Italy Wednesday). His identical twin brother Joel is Sweden’s captain. “I haven’t played with him in 12 years,” Lundqvist said. Also, there is the likelihood that the NHL will not allow its players to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics. The goalie called these championships “the opportunity to play for my country one more time.”
So the decision had a poignant, wistful tone. At this stage of his career, many things do.
Alain Vigneault, in his end-of-the-year comments Thursday, spoke of the past season as one of “re-tooling” and of young players “taking steps in the right direction.” But the star of the team still is Lundqvist, who might not have many more chances to turn his top-of-the-world skills into a Stanley Cup ring.
“I take it year by year. You have to,” Lundqvist said. “You can’t get too far ahead of yourself. It’s my dream, it’s my goal to win. But right now, in this moment, you reflect on what just happened.”
You have to wonder if a team actually can win the Cup with this formula: an elite goalie, lots of depth at other positions but no superstars skating up and down the ice. Erik Karlsson (Lundqvist’s countryman) made the difference for the Senators, the way Sidney Crosby usually does for the Penguins and Ryan Getzlaf for the Ducks. Maybe this is the downside of the Rangers’ consistency and the goaltender’s brilliance: They never bottomed out so terribly that they were in position to draft a wunderkind.
Lundqvist, a steal in the seventh round 17 years ago, does not buy that. “If you ask me, did we have a chance to win this year? Absolutely,” he said. “I believe in this group, I believe in what we have in this room. But we came up short. It’s important that you spend some time to analyze why and make it better for next year.”
Truth be told, the goalie could have been better at key moments against Ottawa. He knows that. But he has been the solution rather than the problem for a long time. There is no easy answer to what the Rangers must do next. Lundqvist knows only what he must do next, to get rid of the playoffs’ bitter aftertaste. He’s going to play some hockey.