It wasn't so long ago that the Rangers were staring down death, rather than refusing to touch a trophy. Through three-quarters of the postseason, even after getting by the Canadiens with relative ease, they've had to play four elimination games: one against the Flyers, and three in a row against Pittsburgh. No one should gaze into the abyss that often and live to tell the tale.
And yet here they are, relatively improbable Eastern Conference champions, having been the underdog in two of these three series, and separated by a mere two points from Philadelphia. The margins have seemingly always been pretty narrow for these Rangers. Even when they win, as they did with a smothering 1-0 performance to close out the conference final last night. When they eliminated the Flyers in Game 7, it was a 2-1 result. Same against the Penguins. The Rangers haven't exactly been an offensive powerhouse. Their 2.7 goals per game in these playoffs is just eighth among teams that qualified, and among the final four, it's last by about a quarter of a goal. Over 20 games, that adds up.
There are no glaring weaknesses, but the biggest reason the Rangers are here, as you might have ascertained by now, is one man. Henrik Lundqvist is unequivocally the Rangers' MVP. No one else is even close. In Puck Daddy's daily ranking of Conn Smythe candidates, Lundqvist is first, and the next-closest Ranger (Martin St. Louis, who has just 13 points in 20 games) is fifth. He also got just under 16 minutes of ice time in Game 7, and has zero shots in his last two appearances. That says a lot.
The Rangers have relatively big names. St. Louis, Brad Richards, Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh. But the first two of those are kind of fading stars, Nash is a volume shooter and, in the playoffs, largely absent from the scoresheet, and the final two are just emerging. Their leading scorer this year was Mats Zuccarello, which is almost impossible to understand. That makes Lundqvist's dominance all the more impressive: He's not getting a ton of help from the offense, and thus winning and losing often comes down to him.
With the stats we have right now, it's hard to quantify how good a goaltender has been over any given block of time. There's no real way to measure shot quality, or even tell how penetrative an opponent's attack has been. All we know is that the Rangers haven't been dominant (50.5 fenwick close) despite some pretty weak opponents overall, and they sure haven't been scoring.
What we do know is that Lundqvist's save percentage is the best in these playoffs (technically tied with Tuukka Rask but with about 400 additional minutes). His even-strength save percentage is .937, which is ludicrous, and still second behind Rask's literally unbelievable .945. (How on earth did the Bruins lose that series?)
But again, that doesn't tell you about the quality of shots he's facing. That's why people have been making excuses for Corey Crawford after his giving up 17 goals over his last four games: "You have to look at how good those chances have been."
Among the goalies who have started at least 10 games in these playoffs, Lundqvist has seen his team start in its own zone more often than all of them except Carey Price, who was felled by injury early on in the conference final. The Rangers' split of offensive and defensive zone starts at 5-on-5 was just 50.5 percent. Crawford, who's ranked one spot ahead of Lundqvist, comes in a little better than 52 percent.
Which is to say that Lundqvist is facing a lot of shots, 30.7 per 60 minutes of ice time when the game is close and score effects aren't skewing things. This, too, is ahead of only Price's 32.2. We also know that the Rangers are helping Lundqvist as much as they can when getting hemmed into their own zone, blocking more shots than any other team in these playoffs at 331. The next-closest number was Montreal's 318, but the Habs had the puck less often (48.3 percent fenwick close). However, they're still blocking less than they did the past two postseasons under John Tortorella.
We can gain some measure of understanding of the shot quality Lundqvist faces by looking at his heat map for these playoffs, though that's not always totally accurate, as it includes empty-netters.
But of the 26 goals which have been scored against him at 5-on-5, the vast majority were from quality scoring areas around the crease. Only 12 weren't between or below the faceoff dots, or in the slot near the hashmarks. That's where offenses make their hay with high-percentage shots and about a quarter of those he's faced at 5-on-5 have been from there.
Six of Lundqvist's 20 playoff games have seen him register a save percentage below .900. The Rangers have lost all of them, but even when he stinks, he's only given up four goals three times. One of his worst performances, in fact, was a night on which he gave up just two goals to Pittsburgh, because the Penguins only had 15 shots. Lundqvist has given up three-plus goals in only five outings, and not once have the Rangers bailed him out. That's a serious point of concern headed into the Cup Final, where the competition will be much tougher, but it hasn't killed the Rangers yet.
Fortunately, almost every bad game has been followed up with a remarkable one. In games following sub-.900 performances, Lundqvist's save percentage is .945, with the only stinker being a 23-of-27 game against Pittsburgh. In the three elimination games after that, he allowed three goals total on 105 shots (.971).
You can make a credible argument that, unless Lundqvist completely and uncharacteristically lays an egg in the Cup Final, he should win the Conn Smythe regardless of the results. Even if they get swept, it will, in all likelihood, not have been anywhere near his fault. Let's put it this way: even with the relatively narrow margin between a great goalie and a passable one, anyone else between the pipes for the Rangers would have seen them ousted rounds ago.
Marc Staal joked after the game that he owed Lundqvist a beer for making that dazzling blocker save in Game 7, but the numbers dating back to the start of the playoffs show it's more like few cases' worth. And maybe, if things go just right, add in another 2.15 gallons.