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Durability, dominance reasons for Lundqvist's Vezina Trophy consideration

by Dave Lozo
When it is time to talk about Vezina Trophy candidates and goaltenders who have a convincing case for the Hart Trophy, Boston's Tim Thomas and Nashville's Pekka Rinne dominate the conversation.

Thomas and Rinne have earned the distinction as front-runners for those trophies with their sparkling numbers and stellar play this season. Barring something unforeseen, both likely will be finalists for the Vezina and perhaps one or both will have a crack at the Hart.

But if there is one goaltender who is making an under-the-radar push for Vezina consideration during the season's homestretch, it is Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers.

The two statistics everyone turns to when judging a goaltender are goals-against average and save percentage. Thomas (2.06 goals against average, .937 save percentage) and Rinne (2.07, .930) have been the leaders in those categories for a better part of this season. Lundqvist (2.31, .922) ranks fifth and sixth, respectively, in those categories among goaltenders with at least 50 appearances this season.

Lundqvist, however, has other credentials that make him a dark horse. The three-time Vezina finalist has made 59 starts, three more than Rinne and 11 more than Thomas, and his 32 wins are two more than Thomas and four more than Rinne.

Not only does Lundqvist have more victories, but his 16 victories in one-goal games (and two-goal games with an empty-net goal) are three more than Thomas and Rinne.

Throw in the fact that Lundqvist picked up his League-leading 10th shutout in a 1-0 win against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night, and it begs the question -- why isn't Lundqvist getting mentioned much as at least a candidate for the Vezina?

"I certainly think he's underappreciated. I don't think he gets the credit he deserves," Rangers forward Brandon Dubinsky said. "Ten shutouts is an incredible feat for a season, never mind with a tenth of the season left."

When it comes to goal support the Rangers average 2.81 per game, which is 12th in the League. The Predators score just 2.53 per game; the Bruins are fifth in the NHL at 2.99 per game.

But those numbers are a bit deceiving. On 29 occasions this season, the Rangers have scored two goals or fewer for Lundqvist. Rinne, despite playing for a team that has scored far fewer goals this season, has only had to deal with that lack of support two more times than Lundqvist.

"We haven't scored a lot of goals for him this year," Dubinsky said.  "We've had six-goal games, seven-goal games, but the consistent three or four goals every night hasn't been there.

"He's had to be unreal, unbelievable to keep us where we're at. I don't think he gets enough credit. He's, in my eyes -- and I've shot on all the goalies -- I think he's the best in the League."

As the Rangers battled through injuries to key players all season -- Marian Gaborik, Ryan Callahan, Vinny Prospal and Chris Drury have missed 144 games between them and there have been others -- Lundqvist has been the constant keeping the Rangers afloat while everyone was on the mend.

The injury bug inhibiting the Rangers all season hasn't hit Lundqvist personally, but when backup goaltender Martin Biron broke his collarbone on Feb. 28 and was lost for the season, the stretch run fell squarely on the Swedish goalie's shoulders.

The 29-year-old Lundqvist, who hasn't played fewer than 70 games since 2006-07, said before the season the signing of Biron in the summer was great for him because it would keep him fresh for the playoffs. Lundqvist said his massive workload never left him feeling fatigued mentally or physically, but he wondered if it would keep him from being sharp enough to take the Rangers on a deep playoff run.

The way Lundqvist talked after Tuesday's game against the Panthers, which marked his 18th consecutive start, it sounded as though he's in the best condition of his career.

"I feel great. I don't feel tired. I don't think my body has felt this good in a lot of years," said Lundqvist, who is 7-1-0 since March 4 with a .927 save percentage. "I've always had some issues. It's always been something the past seven-eight years -- knees, hips, back. Right now, I'm just happy to go out to practice and nothing is bothering me, knock on wood.
"I'm just happy I feel this good right now."

The Rangers hold a three-point edge on the Buffalo Sabres for seventh place in the Eastern Conference and are six points clear of the ninth-place Carolina Hurricanes. With the inexperienced Chad Johnson unlikely to get a start with the Rangers battling for a playoff spot, Lundqvist could play the Rangers' final 25 games of the regular season.

While Lundqvist is carrying the load, Thomas has a very capable backup in Tuukka Rask easing his burden down the stretch. Rinne is in the same boat as Lundqvist in terms of being virtually on his own down the stretch, but Lundqvist has the edge in durability with Rinne missing 10 games due to knee surgery and a lower-body injury.

Lundqvist might not be the favorite for the Vezina, but a late-season push may at least get him an invitation to attend NHL Awards in Las Vegas this summer.

"It's not getting lost in the room at all amongst the boys, and I think that's what really matters," Rangers forward Ryan Callahan said. "To a man in the room, I think we all know he's the most important guy for us to win games and he's the one who most nights gets us the win. I think the big thing is in here, we know he's our guy and he's having a Vezina-type year."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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