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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Henrik Lundqvist remains an anchor for Rangers amid rebuild

Entering Tuesday's game against the Canadiens at Madison Square Garden, he was 4-6-1 with a 2.61 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage.

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist makes a save during

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist makes a save during the first period against the Canadiens at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

It’s like the Eli Manning situation, only stranger.

At least the Giants entered the season fantasizing about playoff success, so in theory there was some logic to having a 37-year-old quarterback.

The Rangers? They started a rebuild before last season was over and have been candid about their game plan, yet they brought back their own aging, Hall of Fame-caliber icon, one only 14 months younger than Manning.

And here Henrik Lundqvist remains, still doing the job, an anchor that has helped keep the Blueshirts competitive as they sort out their near future.

Entering Tuesday’s game against the Canadiens at Madison Square Garden, he was 4-6-1 with a 2.61 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage.

Not bad. Then it got better in the form of a 5-3 victory in which Lundqvist kept the Rangers in the game after they fell behind 3-1 in the second period before scoring four unanswered goals to secure their fourth victory in a row.

“Winning four in a row here in different ways, I think that’s going to help us a lot moving forward,” he said.

The game started very badly for Lundqvist, who allowed Tomas Tatar to put the puck between his legs 23 seconds into the game. But he settled down, making several big saves as the Canadiens hit him with 17 first-period shots.

After Max Domi’s power-play goal made it 3-1, Lundqvist came up big when a single misstep was not an option.

“If they score the fourth, I think it’s over, so it felt important,” he said. “That’s the way I think as a goalie. You have to challenge yourself and understand every save matters. It always matters, but especially at that point.”

Before the game, first-year coach David Quinn said of his early experiences with Lundqvist: “I mean, I always knew he was a great goalie. I don’t know if I knew he was this good. On top of what you see on the ice, I don’t know if people appreciate what he does away from the rink. His work ethic, his conditioning, his competitiveness.

“I mean, it’s everything you could ask for in a player. It’s no mystery to me why he’s playing at this level at his age and why he’s going to play, in my opinion, at a high level for years to come.

“I jokingly say to him, and I know people might get sick of the Tom Brady analogy, but there’s no reason he can’t be the Tom Brady of goaltending.”

Brady is even older than Manning, and like Eli has championships on his resume. Lundqvist does not, and he likely never will, establishing him as the New York sports successor to Patrick Ewing – great but ringless – for his sport and era.

But that’s OK, because it has to be. Lundqvist has been the handsome face of the franchise for more than a decade and has carried himself on and off the ice as well as any organization could wish.

Now he finds himself in a weird spot, backstopping his work-in-progress team. But he has said from the beginning that he is on board with the program, and looking to help.

For the Rangers’ management and coach, having an elite goalie that keeps the team in games can only aid in the development of young players.

Not that it would be easy for the Rangers to move Lundqvist even if they wanted to. He is due $7.5 million in salary this season and has a contract that runs through 2020-21.

Games like Tuesday night’s are a big part of why King Henrik still keeps at it, with no end in sight.

“You want to win,” he said. “That’s why you play, to win . . .We’re learning from experience here, still. We’re a young team. But it’s definitely more fun to learn when you’re winning.”

New York Sports