For one night in February, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist's value to the Rangers' fans came down to dollars instead of wins. "One thousand. Do I hear two?" Standing on a stage at Gotham Hall the All-Star, clad in a tuxedo, held up his signed jersey for 500 prospective bidders as the price kept going up. "O.K., three. Now we have four." An auctioned item from Lundqvist had brought in the greatest haul for three years running at the team's annual casino night, a swank affair that raises money for the team's Garden of Dreams Foundation. "It's now five. And we're up to six." This season, with a career-high 39 wins, Lundqvist has also lifted New York to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. "Do I hear eight?" Behind their dashing 30-year-old goalie, the Rangers have a real shot at winning the franchise's first Stanley Cup since 1994. "Sold! For ninety-five hundred!"
Lundqvist was money all season, a contender for both the Vezina and Hart trophies who ranked among the top five in save percentage (.930), goals-against (1.97) and shutouts (eight). He was at his best in Philadelphia on April 3, when he turned back 37 shots to complete a six-game season sweep of the division-rival Flyers and clinch the East with a 5--3 victory—seizing home-ice advantage in what will be a wide-open playoffs (page 40). His best save came on a point shot from Marc-André Bourdon early in the second period that deflected off Philly's Scott Hartnell, hit Lundqvist's leg pad and popped over his right shoulder, seemingly headed for an empty net before he lunged backward and knocked it over the crossbar with his blocker. "We wouldn't be where we are today," says New York winger Ryan Callahan, "without the best goalie in the league."
While Lundqvist has become the toast of the town—a sought-after guest at the most exclusive affairs—on Oct. 13, 2005, he was a nervous 23-year-old rookie from a microscopic Swedish village when he made his Madison Square Garden debut. "It's different on that ice in front of those people," he says. "My mind was racing." He flashed back to his first game at the Garden in 2001, watching from the stands a year after New York drafted him in the seventh round, 205th overall. The Rangers were then in the throes of a prolonged sleepwalk, when they went seven seasons without a playoff game, and the Garden ice was a spittoon for fans' vitriol. "Booing, booing, booing," he laughs. "Four years later, it's me out there for the first time. I really wanted their approval. You shouldn't worry if people like you, but I really did. I still do."
Lundqvist outdueled Martin Brodeur—then the best goalie in the game—and beat the Devils 4--1 that night, only New York's fourth win in 42 matches against New Jersey. After the game, Lundqvist received a nice ovation from the crowd when he was announced as the game's first star. But it wasn't until his second game at the Garden, two days later against the Thrashers, when the affection between goalie and city became palpable. Late during a brilliant night in the net, Lundqvist gave up an unlucky, bad-angle goal after it bounced off a teammate's skate. A 4--0 Rangers lead was now 4--1. The crowd stood, but instead of booing, it chanted, in a Gotham-inflected serenade, "Hen-REEK! Hen-REEK!" He was thrown. "That's not for me, is it?" he asked himself. "I just got here." Ten minutes after New York's 5--1 win, he again circled the ice as the game's first star, clapped for the crowd's generosity and tossed his stick into the stands. In a morass of mediocrity, here was brio, moxie and star power. Imagine what might happen if the organization ever put a team around him?
Sure, other clubs in other cities have ridden their goalies' coattails all the way to a Cup, but rarely are those coattails as well-tailored; Lundqvist's sense of style is as refined as his game. In New York's carnivorous sporting press, he is known as The King, a blue-eyed wunderkind from a Scandinavian hamlet of 800 people embraced by a metropolis of eight million. Whether jamming with his band, chilling in his TriBeCa restaurant, posing for a spread in Vogue or just walking his dog in Central Park, he has both embraced and invigorated his adopted hometown in the same way that Joe Namath, Walt Frazier and Reggie Jackson did. "New York fits him," says Red Wings center Henrik Zetterberg, a fellow Swede. "He wears it well, like his suits. The culture, the food, the fashion. About the people he tells only good stories. He could not play anywhere else.... If he wins [the Cup], just give him the key."
Henrik and Joel Lundqvist, twin brothers and mutual antagonists, began skating together in a flooded sandbox near their home in the tiny ski village of Åre (pronounced OAR-eh), 220 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Their father, Peter, was a ski instructor who later became a tourism office manager. Their mother, Eva Johansson, was a physical therapist, and their older sister, Gabriella, was a standout tennis player. Besides skiing, Åre was known for its clean air, making it a haven for people who suffer from asthma. The town's only toy store was a few shelves in the back of a flower shop, and the elementary school combined students from two grades in order to fill classes. The movie theater was a school gym the size of a badminton court. Winter darkness arrived at 2:30 in the afternoon. "[Henrik and I] started with hockey because we had to play a team sport," Joel recalls. "We won and lost together, and when we lost we ran screaming into the woods. If we skied or played tennis, one could be better than the other, so we just couldn't. It would have been war." Board games among the Lundqvist siblings were often aborted when the first one out began tossing dice across the room.
It was at hockey practice one day when the boys were eight that Henrik stared wistfully at a pair of large pads, but he didn't speak up when the coach asked for goaltending volunteers. "I was always a shy kid," he says. "The spotlight was not for me. I hated when we had to stand in front of the class and talk." So Joel raised Henrik's hand. "I knew he wanted to wear those pads because he liked the look," Joel says. Even then Henrik was accessorizing.
Henrik debuted with the Göteborg-based Frolunda Indians as an 18-year-old, the same year he played on Sweden's world junior team. He wasn't the first Lundqvist to cross the Atlantic to the U.S. Gabriella, three years older, played tennis for Sacramento State from 2001 to '02 and now works near Sacramento as a financial adviser. Two generations earlier Henrik's grandfather Hilmar Lundqvist was captain of a cruise ship that sailed between New York and Göteborg. On one of the voyages Hilmar's wife, Ingrid, Sweden's first female ski instructor, gave birth to a son, Tomas (Henrik's uncle), not far from Manhattan.
Henrik's rookie season should have been 2004--05, but the lockout kept him home. Ten NHL goalies spent that year playing in the Swedish Elite League and Lundqvist bested them all, leading Frolunda to a title while allowing just 15 goals in 14 playoff games.
In the middle of his first NHL campaign, Lundqvist traveled to Turin to restore Swedish hockey's self-esteem. In 2002, Sweden had lost in the Olympic quarterfinals to Belarus, an international paperweight, when a shot from center ice bounced into the net off goalie Tommy Salo's face mask in the closing minutes. A headline in one Swedish paper read: CRIMES AGAINST THE STATE. But against Finland in the final at the 2006 Games, to date the biggest moment of his career, Lundqvist made 25 saves, including a spread-eagle stop against Olli Jokinen with 30 seconds to play and his team ahead 3--2 to preserve Sweden's gold medal. Jokinen was so sure he had scored that he raised his stick in premature celebration. Lundqvist had saved a country but was still coming to terms with a city.