Rangers' Lundqvist is on a mission

New York Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist has never played in the Stanley Cup final, but he is...

New York Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist has never played in the Stanley Cup final, but he is doing his best to get there this year. (Getty Images/AFP)

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:25 AM ET

Having crushed the hopes and the spirit of this hockey-mad city just 12 hours earlier, King Henrik is in a rush on Tuesday morning.

Decked out in one of his trademark top-end designer suits and matching sunglasses, he looks more like a Hollywood icon than a sweaty goalie as he scurries down the stairs of the New York Rangers’ swank hotel en route to the team buses that wait to whisk him and his teammates to the airport.

Even in his haste to catch his ride, he takes time out to nod at the familiar face of a Toronto hockey scribe, who asks him how his pal John McEnroe feels about the Rangers returning home to New York with a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven game Eastern Conference final against the Montreal Canadiens.

“Oh, he’s enjoying it,” Lundqvist tells the Sun, breaking into a big smile just before walking out the hotel doors.

While some players, such as fellow Ranger Rick Nash, prefer to shy away from the omnipresent off-ice limelight that comes from playing in the Big Apple, Lundqvist embraces it. All of it.

He hangs around with celebrities such as McEnroe and has actually picked up a guitar to join the bombastic former tennis icon on stage to play some good ol’ rock ’n’ roll at a charity gig. His dapper threads scream class in one of the world’s most vibrant cities. And so it goes.

On many a game day, deep in the heart of Manhattan, fans outside of Madison Square Garden start chanting his name at the sight of his dark grey Lamborghini, complete with matte finish and metal flake, pulling into the building.

This is no ordinary sports car, either. On the back of the vehicle, where the word “Lamborghini” used to be, he has had the car customized so it now reads “Lundqvist” instead.

Back in the first week of February, celebrities ranging from Emmitt Smith to Kevin Costner to Rev. Jesse Jackson to Jennifer Garner could be seen at the Super Bowl Times Square media hotel inside the ballroom that served as radio row, where dozens of stations throughout the world were conducting live broadcasts. In this week-long festival of football, the one hockey player seen doing a sit-down interview among all these stars was Henrik Lundqvist. And make no mistake — he fit right in.

Earlier this year, Lundqvist partnered with Bread & Boxers, a luxury underwear brand based in his native Sweden. The Rangers goalie previously had been associated with the company that was formed in 2008 by a couple of pals, including childhood chum Alexander Palmgren, the CEO.

During a recent interview with Forbes, Palmgren put into perspective how King Henrik still retains his humble personality while balancing life in the public eye inside and outside of hockey.

Said Palmgren: “Knowing Hank for many years, I’ve been fascinated by his ability to move between different worlds, yet he stays true to his values and heritage. He’s a successful athlete, living a high life in New York, yet he still appreciates the small but pleasurable things in life.”

A life that has brought him fame and fortune.

A life that included an Olympic gold medal for Sweden in 2006, an accomplishment that made him a national hero back home and wiped out the memory of Tommy Salo’s humiliating whiff against Belarus four years earlier.

A life that, as ideal as it seems to observers on the outside, is lacking one glaring element, a situation that continues to gnaw at his gut.

For all of his hockey accomplishments — an Olympic championship, a Vezina Trophy, numerous all-star selections — Lundqvist has never won a Stanley Cup. He’s never even made it to the final.

Right now, the man friends and teammates know as “Hank” is on a mission to change that. And the Canadiens are paying the price for it.

Admittedly, the suggestions are accurate that the Habs must overcome goaltending to win this series. But it’s not Carey Price’s replacements, Dustin Tokarski and Peter Budaj, who pose the biggest obstacle. It’s Lundqvist.

In Game 2 on Monday night, Lundqvist stopped 40 of 41 shots to backstop the Rangers to a 3-1 victory. In both the opening and closing minutes of the game, the hosts came in waves. All they had to show for it was a Max Pacioretty goal 6:15 after the opening faceoff.

Habs defenceman P.K. Subban said Lundqvist has been “getting a little bit lucky.” Maybe. But Montreal coach Michel Therrien acknowledged it was far more than that.

“Lundqvist was phenomenal. Phenomenal. Stole the game,” Therrien said afterward.

He has been all that — and more. He is 10-6 in the 2014 playoffs. He has reeled off an NHL-record five Game 7 wins, including two this spring. And he has led the Rangers to five consecutive victories, a stretch in which he has a 1.20 goals-against average and a .964 save percentage.

In the present, the off-ice notoriety is just white noise. At his core, Lundqvist is a fierce competitor. He is, more than anything else, a hockey player. Unlike other athletes who allow their celebrity status to get them off track, King Henrik never takes his eyes off the prize.

Lundqvist knows these chances to make a deep Stanley Cup run cannot be taken for granted. He cites the example of two years ago when the Rangers made the Eastern Conference final only to be efficiently disposed by the New Jersey Devils, their rivals from across the Hudson River. This time around, he does not want the opportunity to reach a final to slip through his fingers again.

Indeed, he hasn’t forgotten watching the Devils celebrate after Adam Henrique scored in Game 6 to end the Rangers’ Cup run. As Martin Brodeur hugged his teammates en route to another trip to the final, Lundqvist tried to fight back the tears while thinking about what might have been.

“When I kind of sit down and collect my thoughts, my goal here is to leave it all out there,” Lundqvist said, reflecting on what lies ahead as the Habs and Rangers prepare for Game 3 on Thursday at Madison Square Garden. “If it’s going to be enough, we’ll see.

“You don’t want to sit at the end of the year and feel like you had more to give. That’s what I felt a little bit the last time we were in the conference final. We didn’t reach our full potential, and it was extremely disappointing to end the season like that.

“My goal right now is to really try to reach my full potential and inspire teammates and everybody that’s helping us right now to kind of reach that level and see how far it takes us.”

During the Rangers’ second-round series against the Penguins, Pittsburgh superstar Evgeni Malkin raised some eyebrows when he said Lundqvist “is my favourite goalie.”

Asked for some clarification, Malkin replied: “My favourite goalie to watch.”

We’re sure McEnroe would agree.

As for the Canadiens and their loyal legion of fans, they are probably sick of him already.

And, unless the Habs find a way to start solving him, it will only get worse.

NASH STARTING TO HEAT UP

If Henrik Lundqvist is in the heads of the Montreal Canadiens, Rick Nash might be starting to cause havoc between their ears, too.

Having failed to score in the Rangers’ first 14 games of these 2014 playoffs, Nash has rebounded with goals in each of the first two games of the Eastern Conference final against the Habs, including the winner in Game 2, a 3-1 victory on Monday.

“You know, when players go through (a slump like) that, you can tell them all the lines like, ‘I’ve got a lot of faith in you, you’re working real hard, da-dee-da-dee-da,’ ” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said on Tuesday at the team’s hotel. “At the end of the day, they’ve got to work themselves through it. They’ve got to believe in themselves. And that’s what Rick did.”

Madison Square Garden fans actually booed Nash while he was mired in his funk during the Rangers’ second-round series against the Penguins. Now that he’s on a modest hot streak, expect those jeers to turn to cheers when the series moves to New York for Game 3 on Thursday with the Rangers up 2-0.

“I’ve tried to stay positive through this whole thing,” Nash said on Tuesday. “The team’s winning and that’s truly all I care about. Obviously, I want to do what I can to help the team win.

“It’s frustrating when you can’t help offensively and you’re supposed to ... Hockey is our life, hockey is our job. This is what we do 24/7. When something’s not going right, you feel it in the dressing room, during the games, at home, no matter what.”

While Nash finally seems to be back on track, he gave a lot of credit for the team’s five-game winning streak to Lundqvist.

“He’s unbelievable,” Nash said. “He’s a big reason we’re here. We’ve seen it all year.” ​

mike.zeisberger @sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/zeisberger


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