They were glued to their TV sets by the thousands, even as the clock approached 6 a.m. on Sunday morning, watching the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers battle deep into a second overtime many time zones away.
All of Sweden was pulling for the King.
Instead, they were thwarted by the Kings.
Henrik Lundqvist may be a rock star in New York, but he’s long since become a national hero back in Stockholm, someone worth staying up to watch, especially as he backstops the Rangers in his first Stanley Cup final at 32 years old.
He already has Olympic gold – but this one means a lot, too.
“There’ll be many sleepless nights for Swedish hockey fans,” said Thomas Magnusson, Sweden’s top goalie guru, of his former pupil finally playing in the final.
The first two games haven’t given Swedes (or Lundqvist) much cause to sleep well on off nights, either.
Make no mistake, the Rangers are in big trouble. They’ve skated with the favourites reasonably well for all but one period of the series, but they’re still down two games coming home for Monday’s Game 3, the result of two backbreaking overtime losses in L.A.
Based on the balance of play, these teams should likely be tied. But they’re not.
Historically speaking, 36 teams have been in New York’s position, having lost the first two games on the road in the finals.
Only three have come back to win the Cup.
The Rangers entered this series as the underdogs, but hockey’s great equalizer – goaltending – was their single biggest hope they could pull off the upset. Lundqvist had been far more consistent all postseason than Jonathan Quick and had appeared ready for this stage, for the first time.
He was motivated and hungry – talking at length about how he had prepared for this every day in practice and in pregame – and he has the talent to make good on that by stealing a few games, if not a Cup.
But through two games, King Henrik hasn’t been the difference. There have been extenuating circumstances, sure, with the Kings third goal in Saturday’s Game 2 one example of why the NHL should (and will) make goalie interference calls subject to video review.
If the Rangers get that call, perhaps the conversation is different.
As it is, the talk is that Lundqvist has been good but not great – and with his team outmatched, good won’t be enough.
Masters of the shot clock, the Kings are finding ways to score. There have been tips – such as Dustin Brown’s winner on Saturday – and screens and bodies in the crease.
They have already peppered Lundqvist with 87 shots – 22 more than Quick has had to deal with – and put eight of them past him, a remarkable total given he hadn’t allowed more than six goals in two consecutive games all postseason.
Lundqvist has hardly been the problem, but the problem is he has made up so much of the Rangers advantage all along that stopping anything less than 93 per cent of what rubber he faces likely won’t be enough.
With New York facing a situation now where it needs to win four of five games (and do it against one of the most daunting and resilient teams we’ve seen the past few years), he has to stand on his head in at least one of these next two games on Broadway to make that a possibility.
In a remarkable career that started unremarkably as a long shot seventh round pick in 2000, Lundqvist has done essentially everything but win the big one. He has a Vezina Trophy – and has more votes for the award than anyone since he entered the league. He has a Hart Trophy nomination. He has that Olympic gold. And he has the most consistently impressive statistical resume of anyone at his position the last five years.
He also has the unique distinction of completely changing how a country views his position, with Sweden flooded with kids wanting to be goalies – much as Patrick Roy did for Quebec nearly 30 years ago.
“The impact Henrik’s success has had is immeasurable,” Magnusson said.
All that’s really left to cement that legacy is winning the Cup and bringing it back home.
He’s got his work cut out for him.