The NHL and NBC hope young stars such as Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews boost interest in the playoffs, which begin on Wednesday.
But one of the best story lines this spring might come from the other end of the age spectrum, in a 35-year-old goalie who had an up-and-down regular season and has done everything in his career except, well, you know.
When asked on a conference call with reporters on Monday whether the Stanley Cup window might be closing on the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, NBC analyst Pierre McGuire did not mince words.
“I think that’s more than fair to say, and I think he probably is aware of that,” McGuire said. “You go back to when he played and played so well back in 2005 in the Swedish championships during the lockout year. Then he goes the next year to win a gold medal for Sweden in Torino, and since then he’s had an amazing run.
“But you see that Father Time catches up to everybody. But that just shows you the time frame that he’s been in it. He hasn’t had the best of seasons, but I do think he’s one of the most intense competitors you’ll find in the league. I’ve seen him have . . . huge bounce-back games this year.
“So I would expect he’s going to be one of the most intense competitors in the next series. A lot of it’s going to come down to whether he’s better than [the Canadiens’] Carey Price or Carey Price is better than him, and he loves that kind of situation. I think he thrives in those kinds of situations.”
Fellow NBC analyst and former Ranger Eddie Olczyk said Lundqvist is but one piece of a larger, complicated picture for the Rangers as they enter the series widely regarded as the underdog despite finishing with only one fewer point than the Canadiens, 103-102.
“I think the one thing with the Rangers is that they’re obviously going to have to defend better than they’ve done maybe over the course of the season,” Olczyk said. “One thing that they have going for them is that, yeah, they won a couple of games at MSG and I know they’ve struggled there for a period of time. But last time I checked, I think they had the best road record in the entire National Hockey League, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing that they’re starting in Montreal.
“To me, I think there’s a lot of pressure on the Canadiens. I look at this series, and you’re right, you look at the goaltenders and Lundqvist has to be more consistent, and I think he has to be better. But I think that the Rangers with their comfort zone on the road – that to me is a real positive for the Rangers.
“Whether it’s just stylistics or trying to be a little too cute at home and trying to be a little bit too fine, it seems that on the road — and look at all the success that [coach] Alain Vigneault’s had in his time in Vancouver and in New York — I think that this matchup, them starting on the road is a good starting point for the Rangers.
“But I think they have to help this guy out because, in my opinion, he’s been the face of this franchise for a long, long, long time. He’s had some bumps and bruises over the last couple years, but I’d be surprised if he doesn’t step up and go toe-to-toe with Carey Price and who knows from there.”
McGuire said the Rangers’ hopes will rest in part on how they fare at center.
“[The Canadiens’] Phillip Danault was probably a third or fourth [line] center in Chicago; in Montreal he’s the number one center. So if the Rangers can dominate the center ice play in that matchup, that’s huge, huge for them.”