Postgame, the Rangers build a bubble around the game’s player of the moment.
Henrik Lundqvist requires several long moments to compose himself, and cannot do so in a dishevelled state. Underneath his equipment, he is bound up in gaffer tape like a prison inmate swathed in DIY body armour.
The visitors’ locker room smells like an armpit. While his teammates do interviews, Lundqvist is unwrapping himself. It involves a great deal of high-friction tearing.
A half-hour later, Lundqvist is rolled out to the podium. Alain Vigneault has gone first, looking buoyant and (by his sanguine standards) rattled. Michel Therrien comes in looking morose and hopeless. This thing is near to over, and both men know it.
Therrien puts the blame for a comprehensive loss in the proper place: “[Lundqvist] stole the game.”
Lundqvist hits the room last – naturally – in a perfect blue suit and matching suede loafers. He looks as if he’s just walked off a yacht. He projects the suavity every sport would like to associate itself with. The only drawback is that everyone insists on calling him “Hank.” This man is not a Hank.
“I had to make a couple of saves here and there,” Lundqvist said of a night when he’d made his counterpart, Montreal hockey hobbit Dustin Tokarski, look disastrously average.
“Here and there” is a nice touch. Lundqvist has saved 162 of the past 168 shots he’s faced, reaching back five pivotal games that have turned the Rangers’ season.
That’s the quality the best in any sport have – making reflex decisions seem lackadaisical. Time slows for them.
Nine years into his North American career, Lundqvist is shaping up as one of the great value buys in sport. He has a new seven-year, $59.5-million (U.S.) deal that will carry him to his 38th birthday. It was signed last year, and some wondered about the term for a player already in his 30s. No one’s wondering any more.
His employer, the Madison Square Garden Company, makes more than $2-million from each home playoff game. MSG’s premier franchise, the Knicks, isn’t helping out any in that regard.
As close to single-handed as is possible in a team game, Lundqvist has already earned back next year’s salary. He looks good value to write off the following one as well in the next few weeks.
If he were just good at his job, that would be one thing. A great many hockey players seem superhuman on the ice, and then alarmingly typical off it. That’s part of the sport’s core charm. Up close, most of these guys really do look like the rest of us (if the rest of us lived at the gym).
But Lundqvist has the presence to transcend his game and its gap-toothed image. He’s special somehow. He has a twin brother, Joel, who played briefly in Dallas. Though just as well-scrubbed, Joel Lundqvist is not Henrik. You wonder how the poor guy hasn’t succumbed to despair.
Whatever Henrik has, it’s more than good looks and a great tailor. He is the face hockey would like to present to the unhockeyfied world – urbane and unfussed. This guy could make beer pong look sophisticated.
For decades, the NHL has had its choice of wholesomeness, a steady procession of charming farm boys and suburban strivers. What it has always lacked is glamour. You have to reach back to someone like Jean Béliveau or maybe Guy Lafleur to find that quality, and it arrived before the age of Big Media.
Every sport needs its human focal point. Football has Tom Brady (like Lundqvist, but not so effortlessly). Basketball has LeBron James (like Lundqvist, but a little too physically freakish). Baseball has Mike Trout (like Lundqvist, but not at all once you start thinking about it). Soccer has its pick.
Hockey has … well, Sidney Crosby is a little busy trying to figure out who cast a voodoo hex on Pittsburgh. Hockey is casting a new leading man, at least temporarily.
Over the last two weeks, Lundqvist won the role.
He was already a star, but more for the lucky confluence of carrying himself so well in New York. Lundqvist in Columbus is not the same guy. And nobody is ever truly great without a ring.
If Lundqvist can push this team to a Cup – and in his current form, that seems more and more likely – he will make himself a global sports star. However you feel about the Rangers, that’s good for hockey.
It took him a few years. But just when the game really needed Henrik Lundqvist, he glided into the room, ready to turn a few new heads.