The Rangers have long relied heavily on Henrik Lundqvist, but during their first-round playoff series against Montreal, the goaltender's margin for error was almost comically small. The two teams were either tied or separated by one goal for 96.5 percent of the series, or more than 379 out of nearly 393 minutes. In a series as close as that one -- only one game wasn't in doubt in the final minutes -- even one more Canadiens goal could have made a big difference. But in what turned out to be a fantastic matchup of world-class goaltenders, Lundqvist was up to the challenge, posting a brilliant .947 save percentage and a 1.70 goals-against average. If Lundqvist had been just semi-brilliant in the series (instead of completely brilliant), the Rangers may have lost.
The conventional wisdom says that Lundqvist has made up for any number of Rangers shortcomings over the years, from issues on their blue line to an often-ineffective power play to a lineup that in many seasons lacked an elite goal-scorer. The conventional wisdom also says that the Rangers' window to contend for a Cup will only be open for as long as Lundqvist is in his prime.
And so when Lundqvist struggled through his worst NHL regular season, posting a career-low save percentage and a career-high goals-against average, it was hard not to think about what that might mean for the franchise going forward. Lundqvist turned 35 in March, which is to say, he's somewhere on the wrong side of his career's bell curve.
Even though that's a perfectly reasonable career trajectory, it's a problem for the Rangers. This generation of Rangers teams may have already squandered its best chance to win a title, either in 2014 (when they went to the Stanley Cup Final in a surprisingly deep postseason run), or, I'd argue, in 2015 (when they lost in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals after winning the Presidents' Trophy).
All of which is to say: It was far from clear what the Rangers would get out of their goaltender during this year's playoffs. But with one round in the books, Lundqvist has hardly looked finished. It was apparent early, in fact, that Lundqvist was on his game. Surely aware of the Rangers goalie's past struggles against the Habs, the Bell Centre crowd got on Lundqvist early -- as in, during warm-ups of Game 1 early. But he responded with an impressive Game 1 shutout that shifted home-ice advantage to his Rangers.
Six games is a small sample, but for what it's worth, through those six games, Lundqvist is on pace to put up the best postseason numbers of his career. And even if he doesn't play at quite that level throughout the postseason, a zeroed-in Lundqvist gives the Rangers a lot more hope than they'd otherwise have. Suddenly, this team feels a little more like the 2014 squad that got hot at the right time in the playoffs, than the 2016 team that made an early, ugly exit in the first round.
Thanks to the NHL's screwed-up playoff format, the Rangers, a wild card team, will face a Senators squad that finished the regular season with four fewer points than they had. The Rangers also avoided having to play either Pittsburgh or Washington until a potential conference finals matchup. No, it doesn't make a lot of sense. (Here's to finishing in exactly fourth place, we guess.)
It may still be true that the Rangers need Lundqvist to stand on his head for the team to go on a deep playoff run. But for the Blueshirts, it's surely nice to at least have some evidence that Lundqvist is still capable of doing such a thing.