By Barry M. Bloom
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- If there's any doubt Henrik Lundqvist is still on his game, the Rangers goalie was particularly impressive on Saturday night. At 35, he's having an MVP season and is taking the Rangers along with him. He's still "The King." The Hart Trophy would definitely be a nice fit.
"I think for us he definitely is [an MVP candidate]," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said after the Rangers defeated the Coyotes, 2-1, in a shootout at Gila River Arena. "For quite some time here he's been our best player."
Lundqvist was everywhere, stopping 35 of 36 shots in regulation, three more in overtime and three shootout breaks.
The last one was on old friend Derek Stepan, who bore in on his former teammate and took a slap shot from five feet out that Lundqvist buried with his pads. On the first break, he used his left leg to flip away a wrister by Anthony Duclair, the second his right leg to beat Clayton Keller.
Cool, calm and collected.
"At the end of the day Hank was the best player on the ice and permitted us to get two points," Vigneault said.
It all comes down to timing, doesn't it?
At the other end of ice on Saturday was another old friend, Antti Raanta, who also had a great night in goal for Arizona. The third period was a clinic as both goalies combined to block 23 shots, many of them from close in range. Raanta backed up Lundqvist the past two seasons with the Rangers. In the offseason, he was traded to the Coyotes along with Stepan and faced his mentor and old mates for the first time since the deal.
Lundqvist usually digs so deep into his own game that he doesn't take note of his opponents. But that was not the case on Saturday night.
He smiled at the thought of stopping Stepan to ice the game only moments after Rangers center Mika Zibanejad beat Raanta with what turned out to be the shootout winner. And defeating Raanta was no small thing.
"Yeah, there were a lot of faces I recognized on the ice," Lundqvist said. "It's always special. It's a mind game when you face Derek there at the end. I didn't want to overthink it. But that was fun. They played really well and they had a lot of energy.
"And playing against Antti, he's such a great guy. I had so much fun working with him in New York. I'm happy for him. He's playing really well here. He played really well tonight. It was a fun battle for sure."
The feeling, of course, is mutual. Lundqvist ran his 2017-18 season record to 19-10-4 as he made his 35th start in New York's first 44 games. His 424 wins and 777 games played are the most in Rangers history, coming in his 13th season, all in New York.
There have been slumps and injuries, and under his watch the Rangers have yet to win the Stanley Cup, but take into consideration that he's made 20,338 saves for a .920 percentage.
That's a lot of black rubber Lundqvist has kept from crossing the red goal line, including a magnificent body save on a Coyotes rebound the King made sliding prone along the crease during Saturday night's third period.
"He's been unbelievable again," Raanta said about Lundqvist. "In the last 10 years he's been the best goalie in the league. He's always there. It was great to be with him for two years and watch what he actually does day in and day out. It doesn't matter whether you win or lose. You come in the next day and that's a working day. It's something I've tried to do for me. If you work hard in practice, you don't have to think about it in the games."
Raanta is Finish and Lundqvist is Swedish. They share a penchant for artistic helmets with cityscapes and cartoon images. The one stat that boggles Raanta's mind is that at 424, Lundqvist holds the NHL record for most wins by a European-born goaltender. Martin Brodeur holds the all-time record with 691.
Raanta has 54 wins in 115 games. He's 28 and has a long haul ahead of him.
"Yeah, I've got only about 400 more to go," Raanta said with a laugh. "He's been the face of the [Rangers] franchise for a long time and he'll be there at least for a few more years. Of course, I wanted to be that guy there. But when you have him in front of you, I just wanted to learn. Hopefully, some day you can be as good as him."
Perhaps someday soon. Raanta was 27-14-4 in 55 games over his two New York seasons backing up Lundqvist. Raanta had a lower-body injury earlier in the season and was on the injured list Nov. 26 when the Coyotes lost to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. He's just now rounding into shape.
Saturday was the night of the big faceoff. The King reigned as he has so many times before.
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Barry M. Bloom has covered professional sports since 1976 and is a national reporter for MLB.com. He grew up as a Rangers fan in New York and has been fortunate to interview all of their epic goalies: Eddie Giacomin, John Davidson, Mike Richter and the King. Follow him on Twitter @boomskie. His blog is Boomskie on Baseball https://barrybloom.mlblogs.com