Unless you've just awoken from an eight-year slumber, you probably know Henrik Lundqvist is one of the world’s best goaltenders.
As a matter of fact, he’s probably the best in the world; at least that’s what I believe. And I’m here today to tell you why.
Lundqvist isn't your ordinary hockey player, or even athlete for that matter. He is, as far as I've seen, the hardest working, most dedicated athlete on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
He’s got a drive and passion that has, at times, single-handedly carried his offensively anemic New York Rangers club to victories seemingly well out of their reach. The hunger he possesses is drawn from an internal longing to not only be the best at what he does, but win a Stanley Cup.
He’s collected just about every other accolade he possibly can; an Olympic Gold Medal, a Vezina Trophy, a Hart Trophy nomination, and back in his native Sweden, he’s collected even more hardware.
But it’s Lord Stanley’s Cup that has eluded him, and until he gets it, the hockey world will be at his mercy.
There’s simply no denying a man with the skill and drive to accomplish what he wants. That’s why Lundqvist has been so successful since joining the Rangers for the 2005-06 season.
A former seventh-round selection, The King was passed up by every NHL team roughly six times before the Rangers nabbed him with the 205th pick in the 2000 NHL Entry draft.
His low profile worked to his advantage, as he was able to concentrate on developing his game as a pro in Sweden’s top division, the Elitserien, without the pressures a top prospect would face.
It was his last season for Vastra Frolunda HC, in 2004-05, that the Rangers realized they unearthed a gem. Lundqvist took home best goalie, best player and MVP honors en route to leading his club to their second Elitserien title in three seasons. Along the way, he also set a multitude of Swedish goaltending records.
As impressive as all that was, and as anxious as the Rangers organization was to bring Lundqvist over, there’s still a significant gap in talent between the SEL and the NHL. New York was hoping Lundqvist could adjust and give them the stability between the pipes they hadn't had since Mike Richter retired in 2003.
But I don’t think they believed he would become the best in the biz.
In his first season, he wrestled the starting job out of Kevin Weekes’ hands, went on to win 30 games and even picked up his first Vezina nomination. It was also in 2006 that Lundqvist won the Gold Medal with Sweden at the Olympics.
As we all know, he didn't stop there. His strong play saw him nominated for the Vezina in the following two seasons, which means he was up for the award in his first three seasons in the NHL (unprecedented). He also won over 30 games in the following six seasons (also very much unprecedented).
Before Lundqvist’s arrival, the Rangers hadn't been in the playoffs since 1996-97. But with him on the roster, the Rangers have made it seven of the past eight seasons. In recent campaigns, he’s even turned them into Stanley Cup contenders.
Surely any player could have the drive Lundqvist does to be the best, but without talent it doesn't mean a thing, and as I mentioned earlier, Hank has got both.
His hallmark is his unorthodox, deep-in-the-net style that allows him an extra split second to react to an opponent’s shot and gives him a greater chance of making the initial save. Because of this, Lundqvist doesn't allow many rebounds and is one of hardest goaltenders to beat off an initial shot.
He’s also incredibly quick from post to post, so he’s never really out of position, and if by some chance he is, he can get back into position immediately.
As if talent and drive weren't enough, Lundqvist also redefines focus. The guy is as cold as ice, nothing can rattle him. For some reason he’s got a reputation as a playoff choker; it simply doesn't make any sense. He’s now 3-1 in Game 7’s and his playoff numbers—.921 save percentage and 2.24 goals-against average—are actually better than his regular-season numbers—.920 SV% and 2.25 GAA.
He’s also well versed in championship instances. He’s won a Gold Medal game and has two SEL titles to his name. When it’s a must-win situation, Hank comes through. This is the guy who shutout the Washington Capitals in Games 6 and 7 after his team was down 3-2 in the series, after all.
Skeptics will always bring up the fact that Lundqvist doesn't yet have a Cup on his resume, and therefore he can’t be considered “the best.” That’s just ridiculous. Using this logic, Marc-Andre Fleury and Cam Ward would be considered superior goalies to Hank, and that’s just not true.
You simply can’t argue with talent and consistency—both of which define Lundqvist’s career. And although his ultimate goal is to win the Cup, the fact that he hasn't surely does not, under any circumstances, mean he is not the best goalie in the NHL.
Despite his mouthwatering talent, it all comes back to his drive. His insatiable desire to win the ultimate prize is what sets him apart from the rest. I truly believe that there’s not a single player in the league that wants to win a championship more than Lundqvist. This is a player who is furious when his teammates score on him in practice because he needs to be the best.
And although he will judge his career based on whether or not he can capture hockey’s Holy Grail, his potential failure should never discredit his prowess as the league’s best goalie at a particular time.
That time is right now, and he is the best there is. Last year, in his Vezina Trophy winning campaign, Lundqvist put a up staggering .930 SV% and a 1.97 GAA. He followed it up this year with a .926 SV% and a 2.05 GAA—earning him his fifth Vezina nomination.
He has redefined the concept of a goaltender carrying his team. Last year, he took the Rangers—a team that would have struggled to make the playoffs without him—to the Eastern Conference Finals after the regular-season performance of his career, which saw the team finish first in the Eastern Conference.
This year he once again invited his teammates onto his shoulders and carried them from a non-playoff position in late March to sixth place in the conference. He then went on to steal a first-round series against the streaking Capitals and, in the process, put the entire league on notice: Henrik Lundqvist is not messing around.
At this stage of his career, you’d be a fool to bet against him. Not only is he in his prime, but he knows what he wants and will sacrifice anything to obtain it.
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