- Mike Mazzeo, ESPN New York Writer
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This is the opportunity Henrik Lundqvist has been waiting for.
The chance to win his first Stanley Cup since emerging as the No. 1 goaltender for the New York Rangers during his rookie season in 2005-06.
“It means a lot,” Lundqvist said Friday during an interview on ESPN New York 98.7 FM’s “The Michael Kay Show.” “I was gonna say, ‘Everything,’ but there’s so much about this team that I enjoy, and the ride to get here. The entire year it’s just so much fun to play and to win, and to get to know teammates. ... But when it comes down to it, of course you want to win, there’s no question about it. To get this opportunity in the finals here, to get a crack at it, it’s exciting. And now I’m spending the next couple days just enjoying it and getting away from the game a little bit and then just focusing on the next challenge here.”
The Rangers certainly wouldn’t be in this position -- four wins away from capturing hockey’s Holy Grail -- without Lundqvist. During the playoffs, he has posted a 12-7 record with a 2.03 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage. In Thursday night’s 1-0 series-clinching victory over the Montreal Canadiens at Madison Square Garden, Lundqvist broke the franchise record for postseason wins (42), and tied Mike Richter for the top spot in postseason shutouts (nine). The 32-year-old, who was selected by the team in the seventh round of the 2000 NHL draft (No. 205 overall), has done everything for the franchise -- except produce a title.
“It feels good. It feels better and better actually,” Lundqvist said. “It’s very exciting. Nine years in New York. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, so it’s a great feeling to finally be here.”
Lundqvist said the best congratulatory text message he got was from his good friend John McEnroe, who is currently doing television work at the French Open in Paris.
“He’s a good friend and a big Ranger fan, so it’s good to have his support,” Lundqvist said.
To secure their first Stanley Cup since 1994, the Rangers are going to have to beat either the Chicago Blackhawks or the Los Angeles Kings. Those two teams meet Friday night in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals at Staples Center. The Kings lead the series, 3-2.
“It’s pick your poison,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said on "The Michael Kay Show" on Friday, when asked which team he’d prefer to face. “It’s last year’s Stanley Cup champs versus L.A., which won two years ago. Chicago’s probably a little more skilled. And even though they’re the top scoring team in the playoffs, the Kings are the bigger and better defensive team.”
Vigneault, who took over for John Tortorella behind the Rangers bench prior to this season, feels it took his team longer than he expected to adapt to his style of play -- in part because of a challenging training camp. But they turned things around in the second half of the regular season, and now, as their coach said, “We get a chance to compete for the Cup.”
Vigneault’s team has thrived in the playoffs because of its ability to deploy any of its four lines and three defense pairings at any juncture of the game. Also, the Rangers look unbeatable when leading after two periods, having gone a perfect 10-0 so far in the postseason. Lundqvist has allowed just eight goals in the third period during the playoffs in 20 games.
Vigneault said he texted his good friend Michel Thierren following the Rangers' defeat of the Canadiens in Game 6 on Thursday, and told the Montreal coach he should be proud of the job he did. Vigneault plans to call Thierren in a couple days, allowing him a little time to get over the agony of elimination following a deep run. The two had clashed via the media during the series, leading many to speculate that their friendship may have frayed.
Vigneault said his two daughters, Andreane and Janie, were in the stands at the Garden on Thursday and told their father it was “one of the most unreal experiences they’ve had.”
The best text messages Vigneault received, he said, were from his parents, who are 80 years old. They are glad the Montreal series is finally over, Vigneault added.
The next series -- the one that looms against either the Blackhawks or Kings -- will be the biggest one of them all.
This is the opportunity Henrik Lundqvist has been waiting for. The chance to win his first Stanley Cup since emerging as the No. 1 goaltender for the New York Rangers during his rookie season in 2005-06.