As good as he has been, as dominant as he has been, as absolutely overpowering as Henrik Lundqvist has been against the Flyers in particular, this could be the defining spring for him.
Only once in his past seven playoffs has Lundqvist been able to get the Rangers to an Eastern Conference finals.
Some observers think it has to change, and it begins in the opening round against the Flyers on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
That Vezina Trophy that Lundqvist won in 2012 can’t erase the fact that he hasn’t been a clutch goalie in the playoffs, in which he's put up a 30-37 record. That's when reputations are forged in the NHL.
Lundqvist said he’s come to realize postseason play is not assured anymore.
“You definitely don’t take it for granted,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “You have to earn it and you have to work really hard to get here, and for each round you appreciate every moment, I think. It’s part of getting older, too, realizing how lucky you are to be in that position.
“When I was younger I expected it a lot more. Coming here, I played a lot of finals back home, coming here, maybe it’s been a little bit of a different approach. But now I just look forward to the challenge. And try to win, that’s the ultimate goal now. I’m just really excited to get started.”
His coach, Alain Vigneault, believes pressure hones your skills. He had Roberto Luongo in Vancouver and saw firsthand: Luongo never won the so-called “big one.”
“Obviously, I believe having been in that situation before, playing in big pressure games should help a player,” Vigneault said. “In Hank’s case, he’s been through the biggest games possible except for the Stanley Cup finals.
“So he’s been waiting for this moment, I would say just like the rest of our team. We had to first get in, now we’re one of the 16 teams that has a chance for the Cup, and I would say all the teams have a chance at it and we’ve got to take it one game at a time. And that’s what we’re going to do.”
Assuming he plays, at the other end of the ice, Steve Mason has just four playoff games on his resume. All with Columbus. All in his rookie year. And all losses.
Lundqvist has played in 67 playoff games. He’s battle-tested.
“I don’t know if it’s a help,” he said. “I’m going to be honest with you. Being younger, you look at the game differently, you learn from it every year and maybe I have a different approach now than when I was 20 or 23.
“But the emotions you feel during the game are pretty much the same. You’re nervous, you’re excited, and the highs and lows are incredible, actually, through the playoffs and the series. The way you feel, some days are tough and some days are unbelievable. When you’re winning big games at home, that’s probably the best feeling.”
Winning Game 1 is paramount for the Flyers, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is Craig Berube’s players are highly cognizant of the fact they have not won at Madison Square Garden in three years (see story).
To lose another game would only greatly increase the pressure to absolutely win Game 2 or go home facing a possible sweep. The Flyers can’t afford that.
For the Rangers, to lose Game 1 would plant an element of doubt into a team that fought the Flyers tooth and nail down the stretch for second place in the Metro Division. They split the season series, 2-2.
“I don’t know how important it is,” Lundqvist said of Game 1. “I think we just want to go out and have a good start and not overthink it or put too much pressure on ourselves.
“It’s the first to four wins, it’s about getting that first win, it’s about getting that fourth win. The mindset going into this, it’s always important.”