It was always going to happen one day, and unfortunately that day is today. Perhaps I held out a little hope that the Rangers would find a way to bring Lundqvist back as a back up for one last season, and help send him off with a real farewell tour, but it was not to be.
The same heart condition that prevented him from suiting up for the Washington Capitals last season, has now forced him into retirement, and so he will finish his career as the number six on the league’s all-time win list, having played his entire career with the New York Rangers.
For many, it’s hard to remember what it was before Lundqvist. The Rangers were in a seven year playoff drought, and had used eleven different netminders in the four seasons prior to the 2004-05 NHL lockout. Mike Richter had been forced into retirement following a series of concussions, and the heir apparent Dan Blackburn had been forced to retire following a freak training accident that left him unable to lift his catching arm above shoulder height.
It was a bleak time, and expectations for the 2005-06 season were appropriately low. Veteran netminder Kevin Weekes was annointed the starter, but the 7th round pick from the 2000 NHL entry draft had already drawn a lot of attention with standout performances for Frolunda in the Swedish Elite League – as it was so named, the previous two plus seasons.
His first start saw him lose in overtime, 3-2 to the Devils in their building. He stopped 24 of the 27 shots faced, and made an instant impression with his abilities. Five days later he made his MSG debut with a 4-1 win over the same opponent, allowing just one shot by him as he stopped the other 20. He would start the next three straight games, and six of the next seven, posting a 4-1-1 record, including his first career shutout on October 17th against the Florida Panthers 4-0, appeared in his first shootout – a 3-2 loss to the Islanders and his first regulation loss at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres 3-1.
Ultimately he would start 50 of the 82 games, and appear in 53 overall as he ascended to the starting role in his first season in the NHL. He also backstopped the Swedes to an Olympic Gold medal in 2006, and returned to help guide the Rangers back to the playoffs for the first time in since the 1996-97 season, and though they were swept 4-0 by the Devils in the first round. It was just the beginning of what would be a franchise leading career for the Swede.
In all it lasted 15 seasons, totalling 886 regular season games and an additional 130 in the post season. Those who were born in the new millenium likely knew no other starting netminder for the New York Rangers than Henrik Lundqvist, and for that matter a Rangers team that were regular participants in the post season.
He set so many franchise marks for the position:
15 NHL seasons
885 regular season games
130 playoff games – franchise record for all players
459 regular season wins
61 playoff wins
51,797 minutes played
7,930 playoff minutes played
64 regular season shutouts
10 post season shutouts
He set an NHL record by winning 30+ games in each of his first seven, a streak that was only broken by the 2012-13 lockout shortened season in which he recorded 24 wins in 43 games to be tied for the NHL lead with Niklas Backstrom and Antti Niemi.
His 61 shootout wins remains the league’s highest since it was introduced in his rookie season, and his .722 save percentage ranks him 11th in shootouts amongst goaltenders who’ve appeared in 30+.
His 459 career wins puts him sixth all time on the goaltenders list, while his 887 games played (8th) and 871 game starts (9th) also put him in the top 10 all time. His .918 save percentage puts him behind only Dominik Hasek, Tukka Rask and Roberto Luongo for the best in league history for goaltenders with at least 500 regular season games. His 2.43 GAA similarly places him at #9 all time.
It’s a credit to him that he remained relevant in the league for such a long span, and being able to stay healthy until the last few years certainly contributed to that. He was not only good, but durable, and is the only Ranger netminder other than Chuck Rayner and Mike Richter to have played 80+ games in a season with regular season and playoffs combined. He reached that mark on four occasions.
As reliable as he was in the regular season, it was his post-season performances that really captured the imagination, particularly under John Tortorella where the team relied on keeping games close in order to be successful.
In eight Game 7 deciders in the playoffs, Lundqvist recorded a 6-2 record with a stellar 1.11 GAA and .961% save percentage.
The legend started in 2011 when he put together consecutive 2-1 victories in Game 7s against Ottawa and Washington, and then a more comfortable 5-0 win the following season to again get past Washington in Game 7. In two of those three series, Lundqvist also pulled out critical one-goal wins in Game 6 and finished with back to back shutouts in the 2012 series with 1-0 and 5-0 wins in the final two games of the series.
2013-14 saw the Rangers at their most successful. They almost took the longest possible route to the finals, needing seven games in their first two series, and six against the Canadiens to make it back to the Cup Finals for the first time since 1994. The series clinching games that year were 2-1 wins against the Flyers and Penguins, and a 1-0 victory over the Canadiens. Most remarkably, they came back from a 3-1 series deficit against Pittsburgh to win the series 4-3, with Lundqvist allowing just one goal in each of those games.
Unfortunately for the Blueshirts, they were not as experienced as the Kings and lost the series 4-1. It shoudl be noted though, that two of those losses went to double overtime and a third went to OT. The Rangers blew two-goal leads in each of the first two games, the second one compounded by a borderline non-call on goaltender interference that helped the Kings surge, but ultimately the Rangers weren’t good enough.
They were back in the mix again the in 2014-15, sweeping aside the Penguins 4-1 on the back of four wins all by the score of 2-1. They met familiar rivals in the Capitals in the Semifinals and were down 3-1 after four games having scored just two goals in their three one-goal losses. Lundqvist stood tall once more and rattled off three straight one goal wins to give the Rangers their second 1-3 series comeback, finishing it off with that signature 2-1 win.
Injuries to Mats Zuccarello who took a Ryan McDonagh shot to the head that left him unable to talk in Game 5 of the first round, along with a broken foot to McDonagh in the Conference Finals, ultimately sealed the deal for New York, who finally lost a Game 7 after a six game winning streak.
The Rangers would make the playoffs in each of the next two seasons, but would not progress past the Semifinals again in Lundqvist’s tenure. The 2017-18 season saw the final collapse of the team that had been amongst the contenders for most of the previous five seasons. The infamous letter in January of 2018 sealed it with the remaining aging assets being traded off in exchange for the future.
Given the choice, Lundqvist chose to stick with the team, and though he ultimately lost his starting job in his final season with the club, he finished his career as the starter in two of the three games that the Rangers played in the qualifying round, put in place after the season was cut short by COVID.
The 2019-20 began with Lundqvist once again the projected starter. There was more pressure now though, with Alexandar Georgiev having carried the load when Lundqvist had been injured the prior season, and newcomer Igor Shesterkin who had come to North America after having impressed in the KHL.
With one of the youngest teams in the league, Lundqvist’s task was always going to be difficult, and by the midpoint in the season, Shesterkin had forced his way into the NHL and caused the Rangers to go with an awkward three goalie rotation. Shesterkin quickly had success, and like his predecessor, looked to be the heir apparent.
Long before COVID cut the season short, Shesterkin had usurped Lundqvist and become the starter. Georgiev was also getting starts ahead of Lundqvist, in what was quickly becoming an untenable situation.
On March 7th, 2020 Shesterkin started against the Devils, but gave up five goals on the first 23 shots he faced. Lundqvist came in for the third period and stopped all five shots he faced. It would be the last time he would play in a game in New York. In late July the league cobbled together a playoff system that would enable those on the bubble to try and qualify through a best of five series Qualifying series.
The Rangers were matched up with the Hurricanes and were forced to use Lundqvist in net after Shesterkin injuried his groin in the warm-up loss to the Islanders. New York would end up losing those two, in what would turn out to be his final games as a Ranger.
Bought out of the final year of his contract, Lundqvist signed on with the Capitals for one year to try and make a last run at the Cup. As it turns out, his heart prevented him, and finally lead to his retirement today.
Lundqvist finishes his career as one of the best netminders the NHL has ever produced. While he ultimately didn’t have the teams or longevity to challenge Martin Brodeur, or the raw skill to compare with Dominik Hasek, his name deserves to be up amongst those legends.
Across a broad span of years, he kept the Rangers in games where they would otherwise not have been. There were few blow-out losses in games that mattered, in fact quite conversely the norm was to see one goal deciding a game.
His record in Game 7s is unparalleled in league history, and though he ultimately got close to winning a Cup, it came down to the team being a player or two short in his best years.
Some time in this coming season the Rangers will retire his #30, marking the third goaltender in franchise history to receive the honor. He’ll join Eddie Giacomin’s #1 and Mike Richter‘s #35 and now officially becomes part of the storied history of Rangers netminders that runs back to their first year and Lorne Chabot, through Dave Kerr, Chuck Rayner, Gump Worsley, Giacomin, Richter and now Lundqvist.
Long live the King!