The New York Rangers can thank goaltender Henrik Lundqvist for getting a better grip on a playoff spot.
King Henrik, as he's known, has allowed two or fewer goals in each of his last 10 games (6-2-2, 1.57 goals-against average and .945 save percentage). The Rangers are now riding a streak that has seen them three win of their last four games and take seven of a possible eight points in that stretch, capped by Lundqvist's 48 saves on Saturday that rescued a 4-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes.
That left the Rangers seventh in the NHL's Eastern Conference with 42 points, four behind the fifth-place Toronto Maple Leafs. The Rangers open a home-and-home series with the Leafs in Toronto on Monday night, hoping Lundqvist will continue his late charge to the Vezina Trophy and outplay another hot goaltender, the Leafs' James Reimer.
"Yeah, he had a great game last game," Rangers centre Brad Richards said Monday after the game-day skate. "We were a little bit out of character. I don't know what happened but [Lundqvist] was there to clean it up and help us out.
"You get used to how he plays, but we do appreciate him very much."
Rangers winger Ryane Clowe played his entire NHL career in the Western Conference until last week when the San Jose Sharks shipped him to New York at the trade deadline. Getting to see Lundqvist on a regular basis is an eye-opener.
"Seeing Lundqvist first-hand is great. He's unbelievable," said Clowe, who scored two goals in his first game as a Ranger after scoring none in 28 games this season with the Sharks.
The Rangers were expected to fight it out for the Eastern Conference lead this season but have spent the lockout-shortened season bobbing around eighth place. Part of the problem was a lack of chemistry between Richards and winger Rick Nash and then with winger Marian Gaborik, who was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets last week. Clowe was paired with Richards when he arrived and so far the results are encouraging.
"Going into the season, yeah, we were hoping to be up there but we also know it's a tough league," Lundqvist said. "I still think we can beat any team in the league. That's what we're working on right now and I think we're getting closer to where we want to be."
The Rangers lit up Reimer for five goals on Jan. 26 in their only meeting so far this season with the Leafs, a 5-2 win, although they had 42 shots on him thanks to a poor defensive effort by the Leafs. Reimer, though, managed to get Lundqvist's attention.
"He's a great goalie," Lundqvist said. "He always battles hard. I definitely have to match that tonight. He's a great guy."
The mini-series will conclude Wednesday night in New York when the Leafs visit Madison Square Garden.