For most of the regular season, Henrik Lundqvist wasn’t doing what he usually did for the New York Rangers, which is make his team look better than it is.
The goaltender finished with a career-worst .911 save percentage while playing behind a leaky defense, which is why New York finished in a wild-card spot instead of higher in the standings.
During the Rangers’ first-round series with the Montreal Canadiens, the defense hasn’t improved all that much — but Lundqvist has. The former Vezina Trophy winner will bring a .944 save percentage into Game 6 at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night with New York holding a 3-2 series lead over Montreal.
And if Game 5 is any indication, maybe the defense finally will start taking care of Lundqvist.
It started in the first period when the protection offered to Lundqvist was more of the metaphorical nature. Rangers defenseman Brendan Smith, apparently at a breaking point with the Canadiens crowding Lundqvist around his crease, dropped the gloves and fought Andrew Shaw.
“It’s a message, but I’m not out there just trying to send a message,” Smith said to the New York Daily News on Friday. “The thing is we’re trying to take care of (Lundqvist). He’s playing really well so they’re gonna try to get their bumps and we have to protect him. I think they kind of crossed the line a little bit there. Those things happen. Shaw’s a warrior and he tries to go to the front of the net, and I’ve got to make sure that that can’t happen. I think (Steve) Ott was right in there.
“We obviously want to protect our goalie and we don’t want to see Henrik get hurt from guys jumping on him or falling on him. That’s a little bit on our ‘D’ and our low forwards to make sure that doesn’t happen. I guess it’s a message, but in most ways that just happens in hockey and sometimes you’ve just got to answer the bell.”
Shaw was ruled out for Game 6 due to an upper-body injury, coach Claude Julien confirmed Saturday afternoon. Julien said Shaw is considered day-to-day.
The Rangers have also protected Lundqvist better when it comes to allowing shots. The Canadiens had 118 shots over the first three games of the series — a number bolstered by Montreal’s 58 in Game 3, which went to overtime — but were held to 24 shots in Game 4 and had just 20 over the final 54 minutes of Game 5.
Whether it’s the message getting through with physical play or better technique, the Rangers’ defense hasn’t been hanging Lundqvist out to dry as much the past two games.
“I think we need either the refs making the calls to back them off or do your best to box them out within a shift,” defenseman Marc Staal said to the New York Daily News. “There’s a few shifts where they’re sitting on him, falling on him purposely, all that kind of stuff.”
If there is one player who needs to break through against Lundqvist in Game 6, it’s Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty, who has yet to score in the series. He had a breakaway chance late in the third period of Game 5 that could have won the contest for Montreal.
“It’s tough, but you got to win four to win a series,” Pacioretty told the Montreal Gazette. “I think we’ve done an OK job of, I guess, tuning out the negativity this far. It’s important, especially in Montreal. This should be no different.”
Pacioretty isn’t the only top forward that has failed to make his mark on this series. Alex Galchenyuk, Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher have combined for one goal after scoring 40 in the regular season.
“In order to get through this, we’re going to need more from a lot of guys,” Julien told the Montreal Gazette. “It’s time for certain players to elevate their games and have that confidence and desire to be better. There’s no doubt when you lose games and you’re behind 3-2, you can’t be satisfied as a team and you know there are certain players who can give a little bit more.”