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Lundqvist savoring a season to remember

by Ken Baker

Talking shop with goalie Henrik Lundqvist at the New York Rangers' suburban practice center north of Manhattan, the goalie sits below a row of retired jersey banners, honoring greats such as Brian Leetch, Mark Messier and Mike Richter, the starting goalie for the last Rangers team to win the Stanley Cup in 1994.

The last player on that list is of particular interest to Lundqvist.

"How old was Richter when he retired?" Lundqvist asks a Rangers staff member, who quickly replies, "He was 36," explaining that bad knees and a concussion finally ended Richter's career.

Lundqvist, who is 30 and entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs after his most statistically remarkable regular season (1.97 goals-against average .930 save percentage), says, "I'd like to play another ten years, maybe more. But, with injuries, you never know. That's why you just have to enjoy the moment."

The latest moment for the Swede to soak in will come Thursday in the opening game of New York's first-round series against the No. 8 seeded Ottawa Senators.

Lundqvist's moment-savoring approach to his sport was on full display Monday as he prepares for the matchup. In an hour-long, fast-paced practice in which head coach John Tortorella barks throughout -- and goalie coach Benoit Allaire dissects his star pupil -- the All-Star goalie does what all elite athletes do: make the difficult look easy.

While seeming to barely be trying, few pucks get past "King Henrik." Yet there's an intensity of focus and precision that becomes visually evident when, after practice, he takes off his mask and his trademark side-parted head of hair is drenched in sweat.

Luckily for me, Lundqvist is as generous when it comes to talking about goaltending as he is stingy about letting in goals -- even in practice.

I grab hold of his Bauer stick from the bench and suggest the shaft seems awfully short for a guy listed on the roster as 6-foot-1. "Since I'm not too good at playing the puck, it helps me have more control," he says with a shrug.

In an era of ever-bigger goalies, the fact that Lundqvist actually cuts his stick shorter than average length is one of the many subtleties of his game that add up to give him a profound edge.

Most of his "tricks" aren't textbook goalie fundamentals; rather, he has developed a customized style that suits his size and abilities.

Upon seeing the slight guy fitted in a pair of stylish skinny jeans standing by the glass, you'd hardly guess he's the same blue wall who stands in front of the goal for the Eastern Conference's best team. So, how does he make himself look big on the ice?

He says he tries not to hunch over, keeping his chest up high while often holding his catching glove almost at shoulder height. It's a hand placement that a lot of goalie coaches might discourage, but no doubt works for him.

Another unorthodox aspect of Lundqvist's game is where he stands most of the time: in the blue paint of the crease. Even when given time and space to come out atop his crease, more times than not you'll find Lundqvist swimming in blue.

"I like to stand where I can see the puck, and that's usually a good spot for me," he says.

Basically, he adopts an attitude that if he can see the shot, he will stop it

"Well, that's the idea," he says, laughing.

But perhaps the most telling secret to his success is what he does away from the ice. He likes to relax by listening to music and playing the guitar, jamming with tennis legend John McEnroe with their cover band The Noise Upstairs at a February charity event. He also is part owner of TriBeCa restaurant Tiny's.

"There's a lot of pressure, so you have to think about other things to get your mind off it," says the famously fashionable Lundqvist, who also admittedly thinks a lot about the clothes he wears, often sitting for photo shoots and modeling pricey suits in the locker room after games.

In January, he launched Crown Collection, an apparel line he designed that benefits the Garden of Dreams Foundation.

This July, Lundqvist will add another healthy distraction to his balanced life when his wife, Therese, gives birth to their first child.

Perhaps, it is suggested, their baby could drink some milk from the Cup.

"Hopefully," he says. "That would definitely be nice."

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