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Friday, April 22, 2011
Rangers practice notebook: Henrik's mind, protecting leads and the Blackhawks

By Matt Ehalt

GREENBURGH, N.Y.—For Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, the playoffs are as much mental as anything else. The Rangers goalie said that includes how players think about the playoffs, how they approach them and how much the pressure they put on themselves. He called it a constant battle with one’s brain to try and see everything in a positive light.

So who’s winning: Henrik or his brain?

“I don’t know yet, we’ll see,” Lundqvist joked.

Lundqvist talked at good length about the mental aspect of the game Friday afternoon and his experiences, saying he feels he’s become mentally stronger over the past couple of years.

“It’s not like you solved anything or figured it out, you try to grow and learn from the past and from experience. Every year is different,” Lundqvist said. “I had pretty much the same feeling now as when I was 22. I still get excited. Maybe a little bit better to control your emotions. Just stay cool.”

Lundqvist has admitted in the past that in last season’s finale, when the Rangers lost in the shootout to the Flyers and missed out on the playoffs, he wasn’t thinking properly about the game. He focused too much on the potential result of the game, instead of being concentrated on the moment and task at hand.

This year, when he faced the Flyers in the shootout on April 3 and the Rangers won 3-2, Lundqvist said he focused more on playing his game and staying in the moment and what he would need to do to preserve a Rangers win. He said the toughest part mentally is when there is more pressure and more excitement, saying that the brain is just working a lot more.

As Lundqvist admits his mental fortitude is better, others have seen as it as well.

“I think he’s improved. I’ve watched his last quarter of the season and right on through here and I think he’s improved,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said. “All players need to improve if they want to get where they want to be and certainly in that aspect as far as the mental part of it I’ve seen improvement.”

The 29-year-old said that preparation is important for him to be in the right place mentally, and when it comes to preparation for Game 5, he will not change anything about his routine. While he’s just 1-3 in the playoffs, Lundqvist has a miniscule 2.08 goals-against-average and is stopping 92.2 percent of shots.

It’s going to take plenty of mental fortitude for Lundqvist and the Rangers to overcome this 3-1 series deficit, but Lundqvist believes his prior experiences will benefit him.

“I think for a lot of goalies too it’s easier, you learn the game but also the mental part. As you get older you get smarter hopefully. I know how to approach it better now than maybe three to four years ago,” Lundqvist said. “Just because I know how to approach it doesn’t mean I'm going to play better, it just means I feel better. Never know how you’re going to play, you have to work hard and hopefully you improve your game as well.”

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PROTECTING LEADS: Three times in their series vs. the Capitals, all that stood between the Rangers and a victory was the clock. The Blueshirts found themselves with a third-period lead, just needing to preserve it for the remaining time left, a facet of the game the team excelled at during the regular season.

On only one of those occasions, the Rangers kept the Capitals from tying the game before the end of regulation. And now, in part due to that failure to protect leads, the Rangers trail 3-1 in the best-of-seven series.

With their season on the line, the Rangers realize they must nurture any future leads better as they head into Game 5 of the series Saturday at 3 p.m. in Washington. The Rangers have taken five leads in the series, only to watch the Capitals tie the game on four occasions. Three of those game-tying goals have come in the third period.

“Yeah, it’s been a big part of the series,” Tortorella said. “This is what happens in playoff hockey. You see a lot of different things. Certainly that’s been a situation we’re hoping to improve on as we keep on playing here, but it has been one of our strengths throughout the year, but again playoffs, regular season, it’s a different animal.”

While the Rangers have not been lighting up the scoreboard in the series, they easily could be looking at a 3-1 series lead instead of a 1-3 deficit had they held on to their late-game leads better.

In Game 1, they took a 1-0 lead in the third period, only to have the Capitals tie the game and then win it in overtime. In Game 3, the Rangers took 1-0 and 2-1 leads, both of which were erased, the later game-tying goal coming in the third period. Wednesday, in Game 4, a 3-0 third-period lead couldn’t even hold, with the Capitals wining the game 4-3 in double overtime.

That loss marked the first time all season the Rangers lost a game in which they entered the third period with a lead, having been a sparkling 29-0-0 in such situations.

“It’s helping them get a 3-1 series lead. We’re definitely not happy about letting them rally back,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “We want to learn from our mistakes and go from there. We don’t want them to feel comfortable and feel like the door’s always cracked open for them to come back in a game.”

Several of the players seemed to chalk up Washington’s resiliency in the series as a result of playoff hockey, where leads seems to disappear in a matter of minutes. Lundqvist said that quality of competition in the playoffs means teams can't get away with mistakes. He said against a team with as much firepower as the Capitals, if a team makes a mistake, Washington could capitalize quickly.

In reference to Wednesday’s blown lead, the players stressed playing the final 20 minutes with the same intensity that had led to the 3-0 lead after the first two periods, talking about the game being a 60-minute affair, not just 40 minutes.

“I guess credit to them, they’ve won the games,” defenseman Matt Gilroy said. “There’s nothing special or anything, when we get the lead, we have to play like we have it and don’t lose confidence.”

For the team to improve in preserving those leads, Tortorella said he believes that some of it comes from experience, just learning and knowing how to act. The Rangers are pretty young in their defensive unit, so he said experience in “tight, pressure-type situations” will help his team. He added that he liked how his team played with the lead in Game 1, calling the equalizer a result of a busted play.

While it’s nearly impossible to predict whether the Rangers will hold another lead in the series, if they hope to stay alive, they’re going to have to make that lead stick. Otherwise, it will be the second quarterfinal loss to the Capitals in three years.

“You gotta hold leads but I think we defended pretty well for the most part,” defenseman Bryan McCabe said. “Couple bounces here and there, it could be different, but it’s not, so we’re going to deal with it and take tomorrow’s game as it is and try and get a big win.”

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FELLOW INSPIRATION: Some of the talk in the Rangers locker room Friday was about the Chicago and Vancouver series, in which the Blackhawks have won two straight after losing the first three, and now head home for Game 6 with the chance to tie the series.

While they didn’t say it’s an inspiration for them, some of the Rangers pointed to that series as proof that fortune in a series can change quickly.

“So we go down there, and play a great road game and find a way to steal a win and all of a sudden they got to come into our building and beat us,” forward Brandon Dubinsky said. “Not to look too far ahead, but we have to go and win one game and if we do that we put ourselves in a pretty good condition.”

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NOTES FROM TORTS: Here are the notes from Tortorella’s presser and practice.

***Tortorella essentially said his hook would be quicker in Game 5, with the season on the line, than it would be in Game 1 of the series.

***He said he could bounce different players on different lines, but the personnel will be the same, meaning Steve Eminger is the healthy scratch.

***Rangers practice lines: Sean Avery-Brian Boyle-Brandon Prust; Dubinsky-Marian Gaborik-Ruslan Fedotenko; Artem Anisimov-Derek Stepan-Wojtek Wolski; Chris Drury-Erik Christensen-Vinny Prospal

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NO VEZINA FOR HANK: Lundqvist was not one of the three players nominated for the Vezina Trophy, given to the league’s best goalkeeper. Roberto Luongo of Vancouver, Pekka Rinne of Nashville and Tim Thomas of Boston are the candidates. Lundqvist went 36-27-5 this year with a 2.28 goals-against average and a league-high 11 shutouts.