Henrik Lundqvist, goaltender for the New York Rangers, is the...

Henrik Lundqvist, goaltender for the New York Rangers, is the dealer at the blackjack table at Casino Night for the Garden of Dreams Foundation. (March 10, 2012) Credit: Errol Anderson

His hair is perfect, his tuxedo is beautiful and his manners are flawless. All of which is proving to be a serious liability to Henrik Lundqvist as he tries to move across the room to a blackjack table at a benefit for the Garden of Dreams Foundation in Midtown Manhattan.

Men, women and cameras block him at every turn. Everyone wants just one quick picture with the Rangers goalkeeper. While many New Yorkers would be hard-pressed to place Lundqvist's famous-looking face -- he does spend his working day wearing a white plastic mask, after all -- this is a hockey crowd. And to them, Lundqvist is a rock star. "He is a really good-looking guy," says one fan in a suit as he pushes his giggling girlfriend at Lundqvist so he can photograph them together.

Eventually a public relations person comes to save The King. Lundqvist makes it over to the blackjack table, only to pose for more pictures. The whole scene seems to underscore one fact about Lundqvist: If he played any other major sport, this would be his everyday life. If he didn't play a sport in which his entire body was encased in pads and plastic, he wouldn't be able to walk down the street outside his restaurant in TriBeCa without anyone recognizing him. He would be a Derek Jeter or a Carmelo Anthony or Eli Manning.


Ranks with the best

As it is, he is now the city's best sports story. With Lin-sanity and the Knicks settling down, it's hard to think of a player who means more to his team than Lundqvist. The Rangers head into Sunday's game against the Islanders at Madison Square Garden contending for the NHL's best overall record, and Lundqvist's play is the biggest reason why.

With Lundqvist in goal, the Rangers believe they can win every time they take the ice. His eight shutouts lead the NHL, his save percentage of .936 is second behind St. Louis' Brian Elliott and his goals-against average of 1.87 is third in the league behind Elliott and Jaroslav Halak. Lundqvist is a leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goaltender, and the Rangers are playing so well that he will get more than a few votes for the Hart Trophy for the NHL's most valuable player. Only six goalies have won the Hart, with the most recent being Montreal's Jose Theodore in 2002.

"There's been a lot of pressure on Hank, and he's just been on another planet this year," said Rangers forward Brian Boyle, who is a close friend of Lundqvist's. "He's unbelievable. He's constantly trying to get better, and it shows."

The Rangers have made the playoffs in five of the six years since Lundqvist came to the team from Sweden. This is by far their best season together, and expectations are going to be huge heading into the postseason.

The one thing that Lundqvist hasn't been able to do is lead the Rangers out of the second round of the playoffs. His career postseason record is 15-20. There have been various reasons for that, from injuries to the fact that Lundqvist and his teammates had to work so hard just to get the team into the playoffs that they flamed out in the postseason.


Family man

This year, however, Lundqvist says he feels the best he's ever felt at this point in the season. Lundqvist, who turned 30 earlier this month, married his longtime girlfriend over the summer, and the two recently announced that they are expecting a baby in July. In addition to settling down, Lundqvist shed about 14 pounds over the summer by changing his workout and diet.

"I feel like I have more energy on the ice and in practice," Lundqvist said. "I'm lighter. I was more determined coming into this year. I just feel like my focus is on the game this year."

Those who know Lundqvist well say focus has never been his problem. In fact, there is something a little crazy about the intensity Lundqvist brings to his sport on game day. Boyle, who often shares rides with Lundqvist, never expects to exchange more than five minutes of small talk during any of them. Rangers backup goalie Martin Biron says he doesn't even sit near Lundqvist between periods because he knows he likes his space.

"I just don't talk to him on game days," center Mike Rupp said. "We all pretty much leave him be and let him sit over there alone with his earphones on."


Loved by fans

But although Lundqvist is an extreme introvert on game days, he has an extroverted style on and off the ice that has the potential to make him into a sports superstar, transcending his sport as Mark Messier did two decades ago with the Rangers.

On the ice, Lundqvist plays with the sort of ambition and resolve that fans love. Take the way he sometimes uses his head to stop hockey pucks. Though it drives his coaches batty -- "I absolutely hate it," Rangers coach John Tortorella said -- the move makes fans go wild. "In New York City, they want to see you battle," Biron said. "They want to see you play well. They just don't want to see 20 superstars going around like it was the Ice Capades. They want to see a bunch of guys working hard and getting results. That's the attitude that he's got."

Off the ice, Lundqvist may be the city's coolest athlete. He helped design his own clothing line, plays guitar in a band with John McEnroe, owns a trendy restaurant in TriBeCa called Tiny's, helps thousands of children though his chairmanship of the Garden of Dreams Foundation and recently made a PSA to promote tolerance toward gay and lesbian athletes.


Goal is to win Cup

But all of this alone isn't enough to take Lundqvist to the next level of sports celebrity-dom.

"To become a transcendent celebrity is to get lucky and win the Stanley Cup," said Steve Herz, president of IF Management, a Manhattan-based sports and media talent agency. "He needs to be able to take off the mask and get out there and play guitar on Letterman. Winning the Stanley Cup could do a lot for him."

Not to mention a lot for Rangers fans, who hope this finally will be the year their team doesn't fizzle in the early rounds of the playoffs. This is something Lundqvist certainly knows. "It's going to be our year, Henrik" was the greeting he received from fan after fan as he made his way through the Garden of Dreams Casino Night benefit last month. Ever polite, he wasn't one to disagree.

Said Lundqvist: "I feel like I've improved my game this year, and the way the team has been playing, I'm feeding from that. This year, I think I'm more determined. I'm really excited to see what we can do."

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