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His deep position in the crease makes him tough to beat on wraparounds and helps him to spot playmakers such as Sidney Crosby, who like to feed swooping wingers from behind the net. Lundqvist has also worked this year on keeping his glove up to prevent high shortside shots from sneaking through. He doesn't care for obstacles in front of his face—whether opponents' sticks or his own equipment—so he'll sometimes bonk softer shots away with his head, like a soccer player, rather than use his blocker. Coaches would prefer Lundqvist take some heat off his defensemen by corralling more of the pucks that wind around the boards, but he is a notoriously poor puckhandler. He puts it more succinctly: "I suck." He prefers discretion to, say, the mad adventures of Patrick Roy.
He is the only goalie in NHL history with at least 30 wins in each of his first seven seasons. But last spring, after backup Martin Biron went down with a broken collarbone, Lundqvist made 26 starts to end the season and looked fatigued in a five-game, first-round loss to the Capitals. Lundqvist had averaged 70.6 games the previous five seasons and often entered the playoffs tired. Rangers coach John Tortorella reduced his workload to 62 this year.
Lundqvist has often struggled to find the elusive nexus of concentration and relaxation. "He's so competitive," says New York forward Brandon Dubinsky. "If I score on him in practice, it feels like winning the Stanley Cup." In Lundqvist's first NHL playoff series, against the Devils in 2006, he was having trouble tracking pucks, especially when he moved laterally. Doctors found he was suffering migraines and blurred vision from grinding his teeth. "I tried everything: contacts, relaxing my jaw muscles," he says. "I thought it was my heart or my brain at first." To deal with his problems, he began taking medication, which he dropped this season. His pregame routine, from the way he tapes his stick to his choice in music—the punk-pop band Blink 182—is nonnegotiable. Even Tortorella leaves him alone. Despite his intense pregame focus, Lundqvist sometimes catches himself daydreaming on the ice. "Between whistles I'll think about my wife, or maybe my parents coming into town," he says. "I lose my thought and my mind will go where I don't expect it."
Since former captain Mark Messier's first departure, in 1997, the Rangers have often been an amalgam of undersized, overhyped parts. Before the playoff series last season, Washington coach Bruce Boudreau was asked if there was anything about the Rangers that concerned him. Boudreau simply said, "Their goalie." Asked if there was anything else, he repeated, "Their goalie." New York then undid itself with silly mistakes. In the first game Capitals forward Jason Arnott picked off defenseman Marc Staal's clearing pass and set up the overtime winner. In a double-overtime loss in Game 4, Lundqvist tried to smother a loose puck only to have Rangers forward Marian Gaborik wrest it from him. The puck landed on the stick of Washington winger Jason Chimera, who scored the winner.
This year's Rangers, who face the Senators in the first round, are more reliable, ornery and resourceful, ranking fourth in the NHL in blocked shots and leading the league in fights and hits. Lundqvist thrives behind a disruptive defense that moves pucks quickly and clutters opposing passing lanes with active sticks. With stunning maturity, New York's blue line corps—all 11 who have played this year are under 30—has flourished even after lengthy concussion injuries to Staal and Michael Sauer.
To spark the sputtering offense last month, Tortorella moved speedy Carl Hagelin onto the wing alongside Brad Richards, a veteran center with a high hockey IQ, and Gaborik, the Rangers' leading scorer. The top line produced 39 points over the final 14 games. Tortorella's move of center Derek Stepan to the point has given life to a once dormant power play, though it still finished 23rd in the league. (New York doesn't have the Penguins' scoring depth, but neither does anyone else.) Workaholic captain Ryan Callahan sells himself out going after loose pucks. "Our biggest strength," Lundqvist says, "is in the locker room, the way we play for one another."
That belief helped the Rangers win 51 games, their highest total since they won the Presidents' Trophy in 1994, and then the Cup. The pictures of the victory parade that hang along the walls at the team's training facility steal Lundqvist's easily distracted mind each day at practice. City Hall, confetti and a million New Yorkers. "To do that in New York, wow, I can't even...." He pauses, as if searching for the right words. "Sorry," he says, "I was just thinking about it."