|Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist credits assistant coach Benoit Allaire for helping get him to an all-star caliber level.
Henrik Lundqvist video highlights
Isn't it funny, though, how that urbane demeanor changes when conversation turns to his protégé, Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist?
Allaire, who is currently in his fourth season with the Rangers as assistant and goaltending coach, happens to be Lundqvist's biggest fan. Under the tutelage of the Quebec native, Lundqvist became only the second goalie in NHL history to record three straight 30-win seasons to begin their career. He's been a finalist for the Vezina Trophy in each of his first three seasons, including this season after finishing the regular season with a 2.23 goals-against average and League-high 10 shutouts.
"Henrik's speed was what first caught my eye when he joined the Rangers (in 2005-06)," Allaire told NHL.com. "His recovery time from dropping to his knees and then getting into position to take away the middle of the net is as fast as any goalie I've seen. His preparation prior to every game is outstanding and that's why he's pretty much a top five goalie in the League every year."
And does Lundqvist have what it takes to someday win the Vezina as the best at his position?
"Yes, he's going to be there," Allaire said. "There is no doubt in my mind."
While there's no denying the special bond between goalie and mentor, it's easy to see why Allaire thinks so highly of Lundqvist. He reached 100 career wins faster than any goalie in Rangers history, doing so in just 187 games to surpass Mike Richter, who needed 198 games to reach 100.
"I definitely like the way (Allaire) believes a goalie should play," Lundqvist told NHL.com. "He allows me to play my game, but also gives me a few pointers that have been important to me to use out there. He's been so hopeful and has boosted my confidence."
Rangers head coach Tom Renney said Allaire is a big reason Lundqvist has exhibited such poise and resolve in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this spring. Lundqvist sported a 2.35 GAA and .917 save percentage to lead the Rangers to a five-game series triumph over the New Jersey Devils in the first round.
"You have to give credit where it belongs and Benny Allaire is outstanding in his job," Renney praised. "He's one of the very best I've ever seen. His understanding of the psychology of the position and sense of timing are two intangibles a coach in his position must have, and he does. He knows when, where and how to go about a particular job and what it is you need to do. He's very instinctive and brief about what he wants accomplished. His checklist on how to develop a goalie is not 200 points long."
Renney admits Allaire has made his job "a snap" when it comes to goalies.
"Benny taught me so much about deployment, rest, recovery and the best way to integrate the backup goalie over the course of an 82-game schedule," Renney said. "He takes his job very seriously and I can see how Hank desperately wants to win. He wants to make sure he can sign his work every night by being the better goaltender and he's certainly going to get a chance moving forward."
Not surprisingly, four of the top six goalies in regular-season shootout victories have been students of Allaire, including Jose Theodore, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Mathieu Garon and, of course, Lundqvist. The 26-year-old goalie won six of 13 games that required a shootout this season and, against New Jersey in the playoffs, denied John Madden on a penalty shot with 7:08 remaining in the third period and his team ahead, 4-3.
"I knew Henrik would stop (the penalty shot) because he's tailor-made for that type of circumstance based on his success in shootouts during the regular season," Renney said. Lundqvist was third in the NHL among goalies with 42 shootout saves, trailing only Martin Brodeur (43) of New Jersey and Roberto Luongo (54) of Vancouver.
He's one of the most decorated goaltenders in Swedish Elite League history, capturing two league championships with the Frolunda Indians while being named to the Swedish Media All-Star Team three consecutive seasons (2002-05). He most recently led Sweden to a gold medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, behind a 5-1 record and 2.33 GAA.
The biggest challenge for Lundqvist upon entering the NHL three seasons ago was becoming acclimated to the smaller ice surface as compared to the larger arenas in Europe. It was an area Allaire considered extremely important to Lundqvist's development in the NHL.
"I had to tell Henrik to play a little deeper because, overseas, you can recover easily with the bigger rink, but here it is so fast that you have to get back in your net a lot quicker," Allaire said. "Getting back quickly and being square to the shooter were things we worked on a lot."
The pupil listened and is now reaping the benefits.
"I play deeper, try and read the game better and use my body more," Lundqvist said. "In the beginning, it was tough for my timing because the rinks are smaller so the angles are a little different. But after a few weeks, I got more and more comfortable."
Today, "comfortable" is an understatement when describing Lundqvist in the goal. Thanks to Allaire, it's become his home away from home.
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.