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Lundqvist says he can be elite again for Rangers

37-year-old goalie believes he will bounce back from worst season of his career

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- Henrik Lundqvist knows his career is winding down, but the New York Rangers goalie believes he has enough left to rebound from a disappointing second half of last season and become one of the elite goalies in the NHL again.

"The first three months (last season) I felt like I was up there in with the best guys in the League, and the second half I was not," Lundqvist said at the NHL Player Media Tour on Friday. "You have to analyze that the right way, and to me it was more of a mental thing, a little letdown maybe, but I know I can be up there and compete against the best goalies in the League. So that's my mindset going into this year."

There are reasons for the 37-year-old to feel rejuvenated heading into this season, his 15th in the NHL. The Rangers kicked their rebuild into high gear this offseason by acquiring defenseman Jacob Trouba from the Winnipeg Jets and by signing forward Artemi Panarin to a seven-year contract as an unrestricted free agent.

 

[RELATED: New York Rangers season preview]

 

New York also was fortunate in the NHL Draft Lottery, winning the No. 2 pick, which it used to select forward Kaapo Kakko.

Lundqvist said he believes the offseason of changes will give the Rangers the opportunity to contend for a Stanley Cup Playoff berth after they failed to qualify the past two seasons.

"I've always known this, but it gets even more clear when you're not winning as much, that the No. 1 reason why I play is to win games," said Lundqvist, who was voted the winner of the Vezina Trophy as the best goalie in the NHL in 2011-12. "It's not to just enjoy the game and everything that comes with it. It's to win games. That's what makes me the most happy, and that's the main goal this year. So I hope we can set a goal that means making the playoffs, but that's something you have to talk (about) within the group."

After playing in the postseason in 11 of his first 12 NHL seasons, including a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014, missing the playoffs the past two seasons with the Rangers committed to a rebuild has been challenging at times for Lundqvist, particularly over the final two months of last season.

Through the end of January, Lundqvist was 16-12-7 with a 3.01 goals-against average and .908 save percentage, and he represented the Rangers at the 2019 Honda NHL All-Star Game in San Jose.

In 16 games from Feb. 2 through the end of the season, Lundqvist went 2-11-3 with a 3.20 GAA and .906 save percentage. That included losses in his final six starts, leaving him stuck on 449 NHL wins.

His 18 victories (18-23-10) were the fewest in a season in his NHL career, and his 3.07 GAA and .907 save percentage were the worst of his career. New York went 32-36-14, finishing 20 points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference.

Video: Top 10 saves of 2018-19: Lundqvist

"The first three months, I felt as good as I've felt in a few years, playing at a level that I feel I'm making a difference," Lundqvist said. "And then slowly the second half, it was maybe breaking you down a little bit realizing we're not going to be in the hunt maybe and we also traded away some of the guys for picks, and mentally it was challenging. It affected me probably more than I thought it would."

With two years left on his contract, Lundqvist understandably wondered if he'd be around long enough to see the payoff of the Rangers rebuild. But after this offseason, he's encouraged that he might get another shot at winning the Stanley Cup with New York before he retires.

"Two years ago, when this kind of started, it was like, 'Of course, I want to battle through this,' but you also see yourself being part of it when things start to turn around and you want to get another chance to go after it," Lundqvist said. "Are we there now or in a year? Two years? I don't know. But it feels really good to see we're taking steps."

Former Rangers forward Derek Stepan, now with the Arizona Coyotes, said he noticed the excitement in Lundqvist when he spoke with him at the NHL Player Media Tour.

"I think he's getting to the point in his career too where he understands it's starting to come to an end, so he needs to really compete and have his best years of his career coming down the line here," Stepan said. "I think Hank can play for a long time because that's how he is. He's competitive and works hard. But I expect nothing but a Vezina-esque type bounce-back for him because that's just how he's wired. He doesn't do well with not having a good year."

Lundqvist wants to make the most of his opportunities because he knows he doesn't have many left. He hasn't decided yet how long he wants to play but said he feels well enough physically that it's possible he'll continue beyond the end of this contract.

"I'm going to take it year by year now and make the most of every year," Lundqvist said. "Last fall, October, November, December, I felt really good, I really enjoyed it, and as long as I feel that and that I can play the level I want to play, then there's no reason not to play."

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