Henrik Lundqvist is picture of coolness
PHILADELPHIA -- The Citizens Bank Park stadium workers were busy prepping the stands for Monday's Winter Classic, but paused for a moment to loudly boo the Rangers as they took the ice for practice.
A smiling Henrik Lundqvist emerged from the dugout and, while walking toward the ice, gave the jeering fans a mock wave of the glove and a huge smile as if they were showering him with a standing ovation.
He was the picture of coolness. Unfazed by the heckling going on around him, only excited about the opportunity ahead of him.
"I can't believe it's here. It's been so many weeks and months we've been talking about this," Lundqvist said. "The buildup between the teams has been great, I think. I hope the fans are enjoying it. The players are definitely enjoying this. Everybody is smiling."
At least on the Rangers. New York's franchise goalie provided quite the contrast on Sunday to the franchise goalie for the Flyers. As Ilya Bryzgalov appears destined for a meltdown -- even if he's entertaining us every step of the way down -- Lundqvist is again providing the stability and performance in goal the Flyers have been chasing for decades.
And he's improving. Over the final quarter of last season, John Tortorella saw a dramatic improvement in Lundqvist's performance. He is getting more and more comfortable with the workload the Rangers' coaching staff is balancing between him and Martin Biron and is the beneficiary of a team committed to defense.
"He's just -- he's such a competitor," Tortorella said. "I think that helps the team. It just sees how hard he competes and he's an easy guy to pull for as a teammate."
The Rangers track a stat that measures how many goals are scored per scoring chance. Allowing one goal out of every six scoring chances is considered a pretty strong performance. He's been consistently turning in games in which he stopped seven of eight scoring chances, often better than that.
"I feel like I'm having a good year and I'm at one out of six or one out of seven. He's blowing it out of the water," Biron said. "We're not giving as many chances, we're playing really well defensively and even then, he's more efficient this year. The stats show he's more efficient than he's ever been."
For years, Lundqvist has been one of the only reasons the Rangers were ever considered a dangerous team. Jaromir Jagr credits Lundqvist as the main reason the team ever made the playoffs when he was in New York. Now, Lundqvist's surrounded by a team playing structured defense in front of him, with high-end offensive producers like Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards easing some of the pressure from a margin for error that was once quite thin.
"It's kind of tough to score on them. If they make a mistake, there's still Lundqvist in net," Jagr said. "I don't think we played that defensive system they do now. It's making him even better than five years ago, six years ago."
In between quips about the thermos full of tea he'll enjoy during the Winter Classic and more philosophy on the universe, Bryzgalov explained that most of his struggles right now are mental. Not entirely shocking. While he didn't seem particularly bothered by it, he sounded like a goalie whose confidence was completely shot.
"Something going wrong with [my] game," Bryzgalov said. "Too much thinking."
Like Bryzgalov's interview scrum, you don't know what kind of performance to expect from the Flyers goaltending with Sergei Bobrovsky getting the surprising nod in goal. Lundqvist provides the Rangers with the exact opposite. The right mix of comfort level and competitiveness sets the tone for the entire team.
"I've seen other goalies make more acrobatic saves, saves that you're like 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe you made that save.' But not every night like Hankie does," Rangers forward Mike Rupp said. "Hank's the most consistent goalie I've ever seen."
Craig Custance covers the NHL for ESPN the Magazine, ESPN Insider and ESPN.com.