- Katie Strang, ESPN.com
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NEW YORK -- Henrik Lundqvist arrived at his own postgame news conference fashionably late. With defenseman Anton Stralman fielding questions at the dais, originally intended for both of them, Lundqvist finally arrived to meet the media through a side door, though he stood off to the side for a few moments and patiently waited for his teammate to finish.
That was the only portion of Wednesday night in which Lundqvist was waiting in the wings.
Every other moment, the 32-year-old netminder was center stage.
Lundqvist delivered a sublime 40-save performance in the New York Rangers' 2-1 win against the Los Angeles Kings, staving off a Stanley Cup finals sweep on home ice in Game 4 at Madison Square Garden.
Anything short of what was an absolutely stunning effort would have ended with a loss. The Rangers’ season would have been over. They would have gone down as the first team to be swept in the finals since 1998. The Kings would have lifted Lord Stanley’s Cup in their building.
The mere possibility of that last scenario left “The King” feeling ill.
“Just the thought of it made me," Lundqvist said, pausing and shaking his head in utter relief, “sick.”
Lundqvist finally had the game everyone had been waiting for and what people had anticipated when he was deemed the superior goaltender heading into the series. He stole a game for the Rangers when they were overwhelmingly outplayed by the Kings.
He had no margin for error, either. Not after he surrendered a breakaway goal to Dustin Brown in the second period, a goal that was a result of an unlucky break for the Rangers and, subsequently, six dekes from the Kings captain.
After the sort of unfortunate “puck luck” and bad bounces the Rangers bemoaned after falling behind 3-0 in the series, Lundqvist couldn’t help but think again that the hockey gods were conspiring against them.
“The first thought was, here we go again,” Lundqvist said.
But Wednesday’s game was different, maybe because the former Vezina Trophy winner knew that he could yield nothing after that. That desperation was evident when he made an unbelievable sprawling stop to seal the post and rob Jeff Carter on a breakaway with his left pad. It was abundantly clear when he remained composed despite two frenzied goal-mouth scrambles in the final minutes of the game.
He held the fort while the Rangers were outshot 15-1 in the final frame, with his own teammates failing to register a single shot until almost 13 minutes into play.
“He’s been our best player throughout the whole playoffs, our most consistent player,” said defenseman Dan Girardi, whose stick broke on the Kings’ lone goal of the night. “When we were having some troubles in our own end, he was there to make the huge saves for us, and that’s what we needed tonight.”
Lundqvist still probably needs his own Stanley Cup championship before he is inducted into the pantheon of Rangers icons, but he is working diligently to bolster his credentials. His prowess in elimination games is remarkable. He has posted an 8-0 record with a .99 goals-against average and .968 save percentage in the past eight games when facing elimination.
How is that for clutch?
But no flinching for Lundqvist. Not with the team’s fate on the line. He still remembers the gut-wrenching feeling he felt two years ago, when the Rangers’ season ended with Lundqvist on his knees and rookie Adam Henrique bounding across the ice in celebration after the New Jersey Devils' series-sealing win in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals in 2012.
Lundqvist doesn’t want that feeling again. He knows how long it lasts.
“One mistake and the season is over,” he said. “You’re definitely aware of that.”
11dScott Burnside and Craig Custance