- Johnette Howard, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK -- If this NHL season is going to end the way 1994's did, with a New York championship, it's absolutely perfect -- even mandatory -- that Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers would now find the New Jersey Devils sitting there, waiting for them in the Eastern Conference finals. Because in so many ways, Lundqvist has become who Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur used to be -- the best goalkeeper in the world, the most important player on a team with real Stanley Cup aspirations and the front-runner for the Vezina Trophy that signifies the best keeper in the NHL.
But until Saturday night, when Lundqvist was again sensational in making the Rangers' Game 7 victory over the Washington Capitals stand up before a rollicking Madison Square Garden crowd that was living, dying, shrieking and gasping at nearly every shot -- "I'm not gonna lie, I was nervous, too," Lundqvist said with a laugh -- Lundqvist had no real claim to authoring the sort of playoff folklore that that beloved '94 team of Messier and Matteau, Leetch and Richter wrote once upon a time.
Until Saturday, Lundqvist still had one galling asterisk on his NHL career: The Rangers had never been out of the second round of the playoffs in his seven seasons. And he knew this year, of all years, had to be different.
The Rangers led the NHL in points until the last week of the season. They finished as the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Had they lost to the seventh-seeded Capitals after seeing eighth-seeded Ottawa push them to seven games, as well, no one could have said it was Lundqvist's fault. He played superbly throughout the Washington series, and he was spectacular again Saturday -- never more so than during a breathtaking stretch midway through the second period when the Garden crowd started roaring Lundqvist's first name ("HEN-RIK! HEN-RIK!") after he stoned the Capitals again and again though they controlled the puck for more than a minute in the Rangers' end, pelting Lundqvist with shots, often with Alex Ovechkin or someone else parked in front of his net.
It felt like a power play. It was not. It was pure desperation driving the Capitals. And every time, Lundqvist was up to it.
"He saved us," Rangers forward Carl Hagelin raved.
"This is so big for me, so big for our team, so big for our fans," Lundqvist said.
It was Lundqvist's best moment of the playoffs, hands down. And don't be surprised if it only gets better. Lundqvist has a remarkable head-to-head record of 23-7-5 against Brodeur, which is as good a yardstick as any of how terrific Lundqvist has been since he hit New York.
The Rangers' metamorphosis from the soft, overpaid teams that missed the playoffs seven consecutive seasons to a franchise that's now been in the postseason five of the past six years started when Lundqvist showed up in 2005-06 from Sweden. But once they got to the playoffs, something always seemed to go wrong. Injuries hit. Or their defense deserted them. Often, Lundqvist was so overworked during the regular season, he was playing on fumes by the time the playoffs arrived.
Not this year. And not Saturday night.
"I felt sharp, like I was really seeing the puck," Lundqvist said.
Now he heads into uncharted personal territory. He may have Brodeur's number in their head-to-head showdowns, but Brodeur already has his name on the Stanley Cup three times.
The reminiscing that's going to take place in the next week about the '94 border war between the Rangers and Devils -- The Guarantee that Mark Messier made stand up with a third-period hat trick after the Rangers fell behind by a goal in Game 6, or Stephane Matteau's wraparound goal in double overtime that beat Brodeur and sent the Rangers winging into the finals -- is all just second-hand news to Lundqvist. He was only 12 and still living in his native Sweden back then. And Brodeur was a rookie sensation in the NHL, not a man pushing 40 and constantly beating back retirement questions at the end of every season now.
"It was hard to watch the NHL playoffs back then, and being 12, I didn't get to sit up in the middle of the night," Lundqvist said. "But I've watched some of [the Devils'] games in these playoffs. They're a really good team. ... We've played each other a lot of times. So, there's no secrets, really."
Lundqvist is going to find there's again no place for him to hide, either, even if he's already erased one asterisk by getting to the conference finals.
This team is often so offensively challenged, Lundqvist is going to have to carry the Rangers the way Brodeur once carried the Devils and the way Messier once lit up the Garden every shift he took. And judging from the way Lundqvist played Saturday night, and then the way he talked afterward, he feels energized by the challenge still ahead. Not cowed by it.
Someone asked him if it was going to be difficult to turn around and play again so soon on Monday knowing the Devils will have been resting for six days by then. Lundqvist said, "I don't think it's going to be hard. I'm looking forward to it -- not only being in the conference finals, but playing the Devils."
Get ready to wake up the echoes. Get ready for Lundqvist versus Brodeur.
Lundqvist missed that last hockey war along the Hudson.
But he sounds like a man hungry to make some Stanley Cup history of his own.
8dScott Burnside and Craig Custance