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Well-rested Lundqvist putting together finest season

by Dave Lozo /

Less has been more this season for Henrik Lundqvist -- a lot more.

The Rangers' goaltender leads all NHL starters in goals-against average (1.80), save percentage (.939) and shutouts (6). Lundqvist hasn't played fewer than 68 games since taking over the No. 1 job in 2006-07, but he's on pace to play about 61 games this season.

Lundqvist is one of two goaltenders to make at least 30 starts without having been pulled for ineffectiveness -- Montreal's Carey Price is the other -- a fact that speaks to the consistency he has provided the Rangers, who lead the Eastern Conference with 73 points as they get set to visit the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday and face the Washington Capitals on Sunday afternoon (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC).

It's one thing for his teammates to speak to how a fresher Lundqvist has had an effect, but it's another for perhaps his biggest rival since entering the NHL to speak to his improved play.

Henrik Lundqvist
Goalie - NYR
RECORD: 24-11-4
GAA: 1.80 | SVP: 0.939
"He's playing well," said Devils goaltender and future Hall-of-Famer Martin Brodeur, who has a losing record all-time vs. Lundqvist. "I think it's a combination of having a really good team in front of him. They don't take too many nights off anymore. Early on in his career, it was different. He was playing really well, but sometimes you're as good as the team that's in front of you.
"Right now, he's playing in front of a really good team and he's playing really well also. That's a pretty good combination."

There's no doubt the Rangers have been playing well in front of Lundqvist -- they rank ninth in shots allowed (28.9), fourth on the penalty kill (87.6) -- but just how different is this team than the one that made the playoffs by the skin of their teeth last season?

The Rangers added forwards Brad Richards and Mike Rupp via free agency, the only two impactful moves made by GM Glen Sather this summer. Coming into training camp, the Rangers were planning to employ the same six defensemen who played most of last season in front of Lundqvist.

That plan went out the window almost immediately.

Marc Staal, the Rangers' minutes leader and defensive anchor the past two seasons, would sit out until the Winter Classic due to concussion problems. Steve Eminger, primarily a member of the third pairing last season, was thrust onto the second pairing because of Staal's absence but suffered a two-month shoulder injury of his own in December.

Michael Sauer has also been out since early December due to a concussion. He was a rock last season on the team's second pairing and was continuing to excel there this season. Even Jeff Woywitka, who was claimed off waivers early in the season because of all the maladies, has been out for a month with a foot problem.

Those four losses would cripple most teams, because it meant the Rangers needed to sign Anton Stralman, a player coach John Tortorella had question marks about when he was added in November, call up rookie Stu Bickel and bestow added responsibility on Michael Del Zotto, who played so poorly last season he was sent to the AHL at the trade deadline with the Rangers pushing for the postseason.

"We know as defensemen if we make a mistake, he's always going to be there to back us up, and that's a great feeling." -- Rangers d-man Michael Del Zotto on Henrik Lundqvist

Instead, Lundqvist is putting up Vezina Trophy-worthy numbers and has the Rangers as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.

"He's like this every year," Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said. "He's a great goalie and a key reason why we're doing so good this year. He's the backbone of our team. We play as good as he's playing. To me, he's the best goalie in the League. It's nice to have him back there every night."

One of the reasons why Lundqvist has been sharper with less action is because backup Martin Biron has provided the Rangers with nearly the same excellence in his appearances. In 14 games, Biron is 10-2-1 with a 2.03 GAA and .919 save percentage.

Last season, Biron suffered a season-ending broken clavicle in late February. With the Rangers needing every point down the stretch, Tortorella had no choice but to start Lundqvist in the team's final 26 regular-season games.
Lundqvist said he felt fine physically following the Rangers' five-game loss to the Capitals in the first round of the playoffs -- his 2.25 GAA and . 917 save percentage in that series back up his statement -- but he was more concerned with how he'd feel if the Rangers went on a deep postseason run.

That's why Lundqvist, who like any starting goaltender has no interest in sitting on the bench, doesn't mind seeing Biron get more time in net.
"I think we have the best goalie tandem in the League, to be honest with you," Del Zotto said. "Hank carries the bulk of the mail, but you see when Marty comes in, the job he's done this year for us in giving Hank a break. But with Hank, he's unbelievable every time he's between the pipes. We know as defensemen if we make a mistake, he's always going to be there to back us up, and that's a great feeling."

Tortorella has said Lundqvist is the most competitive player on the team. Following the All-Star break, Tortorella had planned to give Lundqvist the following Monday off after a busy weekend in Ottawa. But Lundqvist showed up at the Rangers' practice facility anyway, ready to work despite not playing in the team's next game Tuesday.

It's the type of effort teammates notice and respect.

"I've never seen him -- knock on wood -- play poorly," Del Zotto said. "That's the thing with him. He's so consistent. You just watch the way he practices every day. He doesn't take a day off. He's so competitive. He hates having goals scored against him in practice. That's just the type of player he is and how focused he is."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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