UNIONDALE, NY – Maybe we should call these the “Dog Days of Winter.” It’s a time where the hockey season grinds down even the best of players.
And that, of course, includes Henrik Lundqvist.
For some reason, the holidays haven’t been kind to the Rangers’ franchise goalie. Last month, Lundqvist went 4-5-1 with an un-Henrik-like 3.74 goals against average. He looked lost at times and even though, the defense sometimes left him out to dry, the netminder gave up some softies, which is something that never usually occurs.
“When you are not winning and not playing the way you want, you question your performance,” Lundqvist said after last night’s 2-1 win on the Island. “Sometimes you just over-think.
“When you let in more goals and you are not winning, it’s easy to question your game and you get off your game plan.”
It was pretty obvious even to the casual observer. Lundqvist lost some focus and on the NHL level, that becomes the kiss of death. And coach Tom Renney took immediate notice.
“You see when a goaltender is over his feet and when he’s not,” Renney said. “When he’s leaning over too far forward, there’s a fatigue factor involved. Beyond that, we know when a goaltender is struggling.”
So as the ball dropped in Times Square, Lundqvist needed to make some changes and had a sit down with goaltending guru Benoit Allaire. The affable coach made it clear to his goalie that his game needed to be simplified. Focusing on the micro, he slowed down his pupil’s game in hopes he would take it one play at a time.
“Sometimes he tries to do too much,” Allaire said. “I just think we had to get him back to what he has to do, stop the puck. What we tried to do it is keep him focused, so [the other team] won’t stuff it in and score.”
Lundqvist looked at video and took Allaire’s advice to heart. Knowing that the Rangers success is tied to his own, the netminder made a concerted effort to improve his game.
“There was some small technical stuff, which make a difference on this level,” Lundqvist said. “Small, small changes affect the game. Not just as a team but as an individual. It made my game much simpler.”
And the numbers agree. During the first two weeks of the new year, Lundqvist went 3-1 with a 1.51 goals against average. He looks more confident in the net, especially in the tight spots like the final few minutes of the first period against the Islanders, where he was bum rushed by his young, hungry opponents.
“You need some luck,” he said. “Keep working hard and a lot of times you will earn that luck. It just won’t show up. I am very happy with the way the ‘D’ played in front of me. They look confident and calm.”
Credit Renney and assistant coaches Perry Pearn and Mike Pelino for working with the team to get back to a defensive mindset. The way this team is designed, 2-1 games are the norm. Unlike past years, the Rangers don’t have the high scoring forwards, so they have to keep pucks out of the net to get the wins.
But that type of play starts from the crease out. And getting Lundqvist on track was job No. 1.
“Every goalie goes through these things,” Allaire said. “Sometimes you go into a slump and when you go into a slump, you have to try to snap out of it.”
And maybe turning the page on a new year.