One of the most key ingredients to ultimate success for any hockey team is undoubtedly an elite goaltender. It is a man (or woman) that has the gifted ability to keep the puck at least 90% of the time out of the net they defend. Don't hold that statistic to my word, it's just a general bar in my mind to reach if you want to consider yourself an above average netminder at the NHL level.
The very best goaltenders only appear to come once or twice every 20 years. Within the last two decades, we've seen what Patrick Roy accomplished in his Hall of Fame career. Martin Brodeur certainly is well on his way to matching the kind of resume Roy has.
The New York Rangers have two of their five retired numbers in honor of goaltenders, namely Ed Giacomin and of course Mike Richter. Many old timers remember the days of #1 in Broadway Blue, but also recall one of the most emotional nights ever at Madison Square Garden. That would be the night Giacomin returned to New York to face his former team by wearing a Detroit Red Wings uniform and hearing the "Ed-die! Ed-die!" chants all night long. Then Richter emerged out of the shadows of teammate John Vanbiesbrouck in 1992 and the rest of his career was history. He backstopped the Rangers to the historic Stanley Cup championship in 1994 that ended the longest title drought in NHL history at 54 years.
Since Richter's retirement on September 4, 2003, the Rangers hadn't found a man to carry on the torch #35 had for 15 years. Trying to fill the shoes of someone that won at both the NHL level and on the international stage would not be easy. That's just on the ice. Both at the arena and outside it, someone had to emerge that would win over the fans of this great city of over 8.2 million people, the largest metropolis in the United States.
Enter Henrik Lundqvist.
The Rangers had already paid a price just to acquire the sixth overall draft pick to enable them to select a Chicago kid in Al Montoya in 2004. He was the talk of the town that he'd be Richter's successor.
Not to say that team brass doesn't hold Montoya in a high regard now, but what could be a turning point in terms of whether or not he will see significant playing time in the future with the organization was when Montoya and Lundqvist were two of four goaltenders in camp for a wide open competition to make the 2005-2006 opening night roster.
Drafted the following year after Montoya, it would be Lundqvist as the 2005 205th overall draft pick that would win a spot with the Rangers. Kevin Weekes was previously signed at the time to be the starting goaltender entering that season after the departure of Mike Dunham. But Lundqvist later emerged as the undisputed starter with his exceptional play and hasn't looked back ever since.
Lundqvist set a Rangers record for most wins in a rookie season with 30. In each of his first two NHL seasons, he was a Vezina Trophy finalist. Quite a good start for someone that was drafted in the 7th round. The Rangers scouts saw something really special from this kid from Are, Sweden. Oh, and before I forget, did I tell you that he helped backstop the Swedish Olympic hockey team to a Gold Medal in 2006? Lundqvist has already gotten a taste of NHL playoff action by helping a Rangers team that entered the 2007 postseason as the Eastern Conference's sixth seed to reach the second round. But he has some motivation to overcome adversity such as a 2006 first round sweep at the hands of the New Jersey Devils and then was victimized by current teammate Chris Drury's clutch goal with 7.7 seconds left in a devastating Game 5 second round loss in Buffalo last year. New York would end up losing to the Sabres in a very competitive six-game series.
Rangers fans have fallen in love with Lundqvist with the kind of play that has had the hockey world talking. Observers wonder how far his potential could go and what he can accomplish. Others are even including him in conversation already as one of the elite goaltenders in the game alongside those such as Brodeur. While Lundqvist has shown the ability to be a gamebreaker that can rival Brodeur, he hasn't even come close to matching what Brodeur has done. At least not yet, he hasn't.
Despite a rollercoaster ride 2007-2008 campaign in which he got off to an amazingly insane start where he had a 1.82 goals against average and four shutouts in his first 24 games, then struggled in recent weeks, the Rangers signed Lundqvist to a six-year, $41.25 million contract extension on Thursday. Faced with their emerging star goaltender being eligible for restricted free agency, this season's $4.25 million deal he signed last summer was set to expire on June 30th. So Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather and Lundqvist's agent Don Meehan were able to hammer out the lucrative contract many observers expected was coming. With the new deal done, the soon-to-be 26-year-old Lundqvist couldn't be happier to remain in New York for years to come.
"I have loved it here since day one, and (Rangers management) knows that," Lundqvist said to New York Rangers official web site reporter Jim Cerny. "There was no reason to wait for the summer. I wanted to get this done as quickly as possible."
At the same time, Lundqvist knows there is more pressure to live up to the expectations of that contract and perform at a high level night in and night out, but at the same time will do everything possible to achieve the ultimate goal. That would be a Stanley Cup championship in New York.
"It's definitely a dream come true to sign a long-term deal in New York. I feel really excited about it," Lundqvist said with a big smile. "I will work as hard as I can here. My goal is to be here when the Rangers win the Cup. That will be my focus and my goal. It's my dream as well."
With those words, it will be music to Rangers fans' ears. Now that his contract is out of the way, he can just concentrate on making that dream become a reality. And if it does, he may join the likes of Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Adam Graves and Mike Richter as those in the recent past to become legends in the city that never sleeps.
As New Yorkers commonly say, "if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere". Eli Manning certainly can reinforce that belief with his MVP performance earlier this month that delivered New York City's latest championship, a Super Bowl victory for the New York Giants.