It's tough to recognize goalie greatness just by watching. That sounds dumb, but the nature of the job is that the best of the best announce themselves only over the long-term. Spectacular saves can be made by bad goalies on any given night, and the corollary, a lack of soft goals, by definition indicates only a competent netminder.
Henrik Lundqvist has played in 661 games, both regular season and playoffs, in his NHL career. I've watched probably 600 of them, and consistency makes him king. He ranges, on any given night, from very good to great. That's borne out by the numbers. His career .920 save percentage is good for second-best in NHL history, behind only Dominik Hasek.
But what makes Lundqvist quite possibly the best goalie of his generation (more importantly, now no longer the best goalie of his generation without a Cup finals appearance) is the opposite of the sort of mental rigidity and physical repetition that tend to define the position. Lundqvist loves nothing so much as improvisation, and if you see him do something that's not taught at any goalie camp, it's a great way to tell he's on.
It happened twice last night. First, the amazing save on Thomas Vanek. The puck, deflected off Dan Girardi's stick and fluttered right at the open net. You can see, in the pause between covering up low for where the initial shot was going, to dropping his stick and backhanding the puck out of air with his blocker, Lundqvist's reaction time illustrated. It's milliseconds. It's barely human.
"Just instinct," Lundqvist said.
Marc Staal, whose turnover led to the chance, was willing to be immodest on behalf of his favorite safety blanket. "Ridiculous!" Staal said. "I owe him a beer."
The second moment of classic Lundqvist came after the desperate Habs had pulled their goalie, a slapshot from Brendan Gallagher from the top of the circle, through traffic. Lundqvist saw it all the way—and headed it over the net, over the glass.
The soccer-style header is Lundqvist's signature move, but it's not something that can ever be planned until he sees the shot coming high and straight. It takes balls for a goalie to intentionally attempt a save with the narrowest part of his padded mass, but Lundqvist has done this dozens of times in his career, and I've never once seen it backfire.
"I don't think I've ever been more determined to win a hockey game," said Lundqvist, who may very well have been great last night, but we'll never know—he didn't have to be. He was asked to make just 18 saves, with just two or three legitimately good scoring chances. Instead, he presided over as close to a blowout as a 1-0 game can be. The Rangers offense, stymied by an excellent Dustin Tokarski, forecheck-strangled the life out of the Habs' attack. The defense swatted any odd-man rushes in the crib.
This is a deep, well-rounded Rangers team, nothing like the rosters from the last few years which couldn't score to save their lives, and were dragged into and through the playoffs by Lundqvist. The formula's as simple and obvious as it is impossible to replicate. Largely homegrown blueliners, taken to the next level by an absolutely robbery of a trade with Montreal. Big money spent on older scoring forwards, topped off with a season-and-a-half rental of one of the game's best facilitators. Hiring a coach whose guts aren't absolutely hated by the locker room. But above all else, a Hall-of-Fame goalie drafted in the seventh round (it's just that easy!).
If the Rangers manage to get past L.A. or Chicago, and they're underdogs against each, it's no great leap to predict that it'll only be because Lundqvist stands on his head. If the Rangers win four more games before they lose four, Lundqvist will undoubtedly take home his first Conn Smythe. But if that happens, there's some even better hardware waiting for him.