GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist had to rediscover his patience in order to rediscover his Vezina Trophy-winning form. There have been signs in the past two and a half weeks that they're happening simultaneously.
Lundqvist is 5-1-1 with a 2.37 goals-against average and .926 save percentage in his past seven starts. He and the Rangers take a three-game winning streak into their game Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Madison Square Garden.
"There's still some work to be done here, but at least it's going in the right direction," Lundqvist said following practice Monday. "I realized a few weeks, or maybe a month back, that I'm not going to turn this around in one game or two games, that it's going to take a while and I have to take it step by step, work hard, and win or lose at least I have to play my game and stick to it.
"It's been a new experience for me, no question," he continued. "This stretch that I had early on was probably the first time I experienced [playing inconsistently] in 13 years. Of course you always have bad games. Even when you play well you are going to have bad games, but this year has been different. You learn from it."
In particular, Lundqvist has learned that the moment he starts trying to challenge shooters on a consistent basis his game turns inconsistent and he begins to show signs of mental weakness. The thinking behind that comes from Lundqvist's playing style, and the belief he has in it.
He said he has always relied on playing deep in the crease because he's a reactionary goalie and the deeper he plays the more time he has to react. Lundqvist said he's not big enough to rely on the puck hitting him, and he doesn't want to try to rely on quickness the way that goalies like Jonathan Quick and Tim Thomas do.
"I play better when I stay back and when I'm patient," Lundqvist said. "Some guys like to jump out and block and challenge more, but I don't play that way."
However, as recently as late last month, Lundqvist felt he was occasionally straying from his crease and winding up at the top of the blue paint. It was a sign that something was clearly off in his game. He wasn't as confident as he needs to be.
"Some guys still think you have to always challenge a guy and that means confidence; to me it's the opposite," Lundqvist said. "Staying back, to me, is confidence. Being patient is the No. 1 thing for a confident goalie. You never make the first move. The shooters are so good that a lot of times if you make the first move they're going to score. You can play a lot of different ways, but if you're patient you're going to have more success."
That patience has returned to Lundqvist's game since the Rangers' road trip to Florida in late December.
Lundqvist made 37 saves in a win against the Lightning on Dec. 29 and 21 in a win against the Florida Panthers on New Year's Eve. He had a rough opening to 2014, giving up five goals on 28 shots to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Jan. 3, but has allowed only eight goals in his past four starts, including five in the past three.
It's to the point now where Rangers coach Alain Vigneault can laugh when he gets asked who is starting in goal for the next game, as he did Monday.
"Are you really asking me that?" Vigneault said jokingly. "Hank is starting [Tuesday]."
The answer wasn't so easy last month, nor was the Rangers' goaltending situation a laughing matter; backup Cam Talbot made three consecutive starts from Dec. 22-27 before Lundqvist got back in the net against the Lightning. Lundqvist has since lowered his goals-against average from 2.77 to 2.68 and raised his save percentage from .905 to .910.
"I am trying to do the right things in practice, but to really gain some confidence you need to win, you need to feel good about yourself," Lundqvist said. "I feel like starting in Florida that trip was good for me. I had a couple of good games and started building on that."
Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh said Lundqvist's confidence and patience shows up in other areas of his game too.
"He's talking a lot more," McDonagh said. "He's playing the puck and making good decisions when he plays the puck. That's when we know he's really feeling in the zone. It helps us as defensemen and everybody as a group feed off of his intensity."
McDonagh also said he's noticed that Lundqvist is trying to cut off angles on shooters rushing in from the sides. He isn't doing it by challenging, but rather by staying tight to the post even when bodies are coming directly at him to crash the crease.
"He's willing to take a bump," McDonagh said. "With him a difficult save, he makes it look repetitive and that's when you know he's in a zone, reading it right. There are a lot of plays where you get nervous but he calmly makes a save and gets it away from the front of the net."
Lundqvist was doing that earlier in the season too, but then there was that occasional play when he'd come out and challenge. For some goalies that's a sign of strength; for Lundqvist it takes him out of his comfort zone.
The closer he stays to the net, the more patient he is. The more patient he is, the better he's going to be.
"My game is playing deep and obviously sometimes when things are not going right maybe you start challenging more, you're not as relaxed," Lundqvist said. "It's a lot of small details and when you add them up it's going to make a difference. It's important that you analyze your game the right way so you get the right answers."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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