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Monday, May 14, 2012
Good is not enough versus Lundqvist

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- So, this is what the New Jersey Devils are up against.

They play a pretty darned good road game.

They forechecked like crazy.

They hemmed the New York Rangers in their zone for long periods of time, especially in the second period.

They got a sharp, at times spectacular, performance from their 40-year-old netminder Martin Brodeur.

And?

And they're down 1-0 in the Eastern Conference finals.

That's what happens when the guy in the bulky pads at the other end of the ice pitching a shutout is named Henrik Lundqvist.

The man often referred to in these parts as King Henrik turned aside all 21 New Jersey shots he faced Monday night to lead the Rangers to a 3-0 victory.

The game that was scoreless through two periods and actually appeared to be tilting in favor of the Devils until the first minute of the third period. Just 53 seconds into the final frame, defenseman Dan Girardi took a neat back pass from rookie Chris Kreider and blasted home what would turn out to be the winner.

But that play's significance is tied entirely to the play of Lundqvist, especially in the second period when the Devils had the Rangers on the ropes.

During one short-handed sequence, New Jersey captain Zach Parise had three solid whacks at the goal from the side of the net and Lundqvist turned them all aside.

"He was really good in the second," head coach John Tortorella said postgame of his franchise netminder.

"That was a really important sequence."

There is a certain sameness to all of the Rangers' playoff games, a certain pattern, and at the heart of that pattern is Lundqvist.

For the 14th straight game this spring, the Rangers did not manage to score more than three goals. For the 10th time this spring, the Rangers allowed two or fewer goals.

"I thought both goalies played well," offered Devils head coach Pete DeBoer. "Again, I think whoever was going to score first tonight was going to win. And they threw a point shot at the net that found a way through. We threw a lot of those at the net, too, and didn't find one through."

There was a lot of discussion heading into this conference final about the Rangers' stamina both mentally and physically based on having to endure two seven-game sets to get here.

Tortorella chafes at the notion his team might be tired, but there is no question that part of their freshness comes from Lundqvist. He invigorates them, allows them to play through rough patches without apparent damage.

"We worked really hard," Lundqvist said. "It's always tough to come from a Game 7, so emotional and everything around it and you start over."

In the second period -- as was the case in Game 7 of the conference semifinals against Washington -- the Rangers seemed to lose their way, failing to clear pucks, allowing chances and feeling the pressure, but in the end not flinching.

"As a goalie you always have to step up when the team needs you, not when you feel good and you have your moments," Lundqvist explained. "A lot of times it's when the team's struggling you have to step up. It's fun, too, to be there and try to make the difference sometimes when the team is going through a tough stretch. And then they will bail me out maybe when I'm struggling a little bit."

Forgive us for arching our eyebrows over the "when I'm struggling a bit" line because, well, it just doesn't seem like that's going to happen.

"I don't know. It seems like every save's a little bit different and a little bit tougher as we go along here and the big play's where he steps up," said Ryan McDonagh who had a strong game for the Rangers breaking up a number of good scoring chances.

"Like I said, you don't want to be giving up chances like that but it's good to have him back there as a backbone stepping up."

The play of the two netminders loomed large, not just because of their history and the shared history and geography of the two franchises, but the closeness of these playoffs in general.

Lundqvist leads the NHL with a 1.57 goals-against average and is third with a .940 save percentage. The odds suggested Brodeur was going to have to come up huge in this series to eliminate what looked on paper like a significant edge.

For the most part Monday, Brodeur was excellent, allowing just two goals on 27 shots.

He denied Marian Gaborik on an excellent chance on a Rangers power play in the second period. He likewise stoned Michael Del Zotto, but he could not get his body in front of Girardi's shot early in the third.

A short time later, it was Lundqvist stoning Ilya Kovalchuk with a drive from the left circle.

Just past the midpoint of the third, Brodeur looked like a young man diving across the crease to block a Marc Staal attempt that looked like a sure goal.

But then Kreider cashed in during a Rangers power play with a hard shot Brodeur couldn't handle, and that was more than enough for the Rangers, who added an empty-net goal in the final two minutes to close out the scoring.

Most goalies don't like to talk about confronting their peers. Yet Lundqvist is surprisingly candid about facing Brodeur, the NHL's winningest goaltender.

Maybe that's because he has dominated regular-season play against Brodeur the last few years.

The two have split the two playoff series in which they've faced each other, but those were first-round matchups. This one, of course, presents much more significant stakes with a berth in the Stanley Cup finals on the line. It's also the kind of series that looms large for Lundqvist, who has never won a Vezina Trophy (although he is a nominee and favorite this year) and never been beyond the second round of the playoffs.

Brodeur has won four Vezina Trophies and three Stanley Cup rings.

"Every time you play against great players it's exciting and then already coming into the league and playing against Marty, growing up he was already a big guy over here, a big name," Lundqvist said.

"Of course it's inspiring and exciting to play against the top guys. It always is."

As for Brodeur, he joked that Lundqvist seemed to be getting a lot of help from his teammates, who blocked 26 shots on the night.

"Well, from my view I saw him for about 10 minutes of the game because there were so many Ranger players in front of him," Brodeur said.

"But he played well."

That, folks, is what they call an understatement.