- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
- 0 Shares
NEWARK, N.J. -- They are the best New York sports story going in the city other than Linsanity, and yet they haven't captured the city's imagination the way they're going to if Henrik Lundqvist can just keep his pace up. But whether he can is the question on which the Rangers' Stanley Cup hopes pivot. Because unlike the 39-year-old master facing him at the other end of the ice Tuesday night -- Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur -- Lundqvist, now in his seventh NHL season, is still waiting to have the NHL postseason of his life.
And no athlete in New York is under more pressure to make sure 2012 is the season he comes through.
Carrying the Rangers deep in the playoffs is the last asterisk Lundqvist needs to remove from his career, and he need look no further than Brodeur for a blueprint on how a goaltender who stands on his head night after night can take a team from merely contending to having a victory parade.
The Rangers began Tuesday night's game at the Prudential Center with the most points in the NHL. They played .650 hockey through their first 60 games -- a pace that not even the beloved Stanley Cup team of 1993-94 matched.
There are now only 17 regular-season games to navigate before Lundqvist embarks on his best shot yet at grabbing the sort of postseason glory no Rangers player since Mark Messier has enjoyed for a single season of work.
And after they fell 4-1 Tuesday night in a mistake-filled loss that was padded by a Devils empty-net goal, Lundqvist was frank about what will -- and won't -- happen if the Rangers don't quit leaking oil and get back to playing the way they have on the way to piling up the most points in the NHL.
"The reason we've been winning is we haven't really made that many mistakes," Lundqvist said after losing to the Devils for just the third time in 12 games. "We've been playing tight hockey and smart hockey, working really hard. And if that's not there, I don't think we have the skill to beat teams. That's where it starts. ... We have to get back to that.
"Even though we've been winning games, I don't think many of us are happy with how we've been winning [lately]."
All around the Rangers' dressing room, other players were saying the same thing.
But the Rangers still rise and fall with Lundqvist, and he was good but not great amid all the mistakes the team made in front of him.
In so many ways Lundqvist has become what Brodeur used to be -- the best goalkeeper in the world, the most important player on a team with real Stanley Cup aspirations, and the frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy that signifies the best keeper in the NHL.
The Rangers' transformation from the miserable, overpaid team that missed the playoffs for seven consecutive seasons to a club that's now been in the postseason five of the previous six years started when Lundqvist showed up in 2005-06 from Sweden.
Lundqvist's remarkable head-to-head record of 22-7-5 against Brodeur since then is as good a yardstick as any of how terrific Lundqvist has been since he hit New York.
But here's the rub: Come playoff time, he and the Rangers have never gotten out of the second round together. His career postseason record is only 15-20, and it seems as if it's always been something. One year, Jaromir Jagr got hurt. Some other years, Lundqvist was such a regular-season workhorse just to get the Rangers into the playoffs, he was playing on fumes by the time the postseason finally arrived.
This year has to be different. This is shaping up as the postseason Lundqvist has to carry this team the way Brodeur was once carried the Devils, and the way Messier once lit up the Garden every shift he took.
Because as admirably driven as the Rangers have remained, and as terrific a job head coach John Tortorella has done whipcracking and hectoring them to think no further than their next shift, the inescapable truth is this: The better the Rangers do, the more off the charts and even more unforgiving the 2012 playoff expectations for them are going to become.
That's true for the entire team. But that's especially true for Lundqvist.
The Rangers are 4-0 against the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins this season, and they're 4-0 against the Flyers.
Lundqvist took a career-best 1.82 goals against average into Tuesday's game against the Devils, the second-stingiest mark in the league behind St. Louis goalie Brian Elliott's 1.63 GAA. But Brodeur -- who refuses to even pretend he doesn't look forward to these head-to-head matchups -- outdid Lundqvist when the Rangers weren't hurting themselves.
The Devils' first goal came just 49 seconds into the game after a Rangers center-ice turnover that New Jersey's Zach Parise poked ahead to Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk, who walked in on the net alone after backpedaling Rangers' defenseman Ryan McDonagh fell down and cleanly beat Lundqvist with a wrist shot.
The Devils eventually pulled away with two third-period goals that came just 1:48 apart -- the second of them on the sort of odd-man rushes the Rangers gave up all too frequently on the night.
By the time the Devils added their empty-net score, Tortorella was clearly irritated, and he hadn't totally cooled down a good 20 minutes after the game.
His postgame press conference lasted just 57 seconds.
"I thought we gathered ourselves in the second period after just a horse---- first period," Tortorella said. "Then some details, some turnovers that were just ridiculous cost us the game in the third."
The big picture outlook is the Rangers still lead the Eastern Conference with ease. This will be a nice memory for the Devils, now sixth in the Eastern Conference, to cling to if they happen to meet the Rangers in another playoff border war.
But beyond that?
For a change, it may be Lundqvist -- not Brodeur -- who has some fresh motivation next time they meet after the way the Devils' crowd sent him and the Rangers home with this singsong cheer: "Marty's bet-ter ... Marty's bet-ter."
Asked later if it was the sort of night that could be a wakeup call for all the Rangers, Lundqvist said, "We'll see."