In the end, ‘The King’ could only watch from the sidelines. His replacement couldn’t find a win either, but Carolina’s elimination of the New York Rangers in three straight games certified the spiritual end of an era for the Blueshirts.
Henrik Lundqvist was not the reason New York lost this series. But he was the second-best goaltender to Hurricanes stopper Petr Mrazek in the first two games. The future instead belongs to Igor Shesterkin—and don’t read too much into the fact he himself was the second-best goaltender on the ice in Game 3, behind Carolina’s James Reimer, who played exceptionally well for the Hurricanes in the sweeping clincher.
For Shesterkin gave New York the best chance to survive and his calm, positionally-sound play helped the Rangers fend off Carolina for the first part of the game. The Russian rookie made some spectacular saves early in the third period and could in no way be faulted for the dagger, when Sebastian Aho gave the Hurricanes a 3-1 lead by pouncing on a Jacob Trouba turnover before undressing Tony DeAngelo en route to the net.
We can only speculate if Lundqvist would have fared any better, but with the teams playing on back-to-back days, it only made sense to go to a healthy Shesterkin—the young netminder who had usurped the veteran during the regular season.
This was the inevitability in New York, as tough as it was to see. Lundqvist had played 129 straight playoff games for the Blueshirts and once he retires, his jersey will shoot to the rafters of Madison Square Garden. He is an iconic Ranger and this ending doesn’t change that.
“A Consummate professional,” said left winger Chris Kreider. “Unbelievable human being, unbelievable competitor, the kind of guy you want to be in the trenches with. He wants to win more than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s been an absolute honor and pleasure to get to know him as a person and as a teammate as long as I have. I have the utmost respect for Hank.”
While Lundqvist still has one year left on a contract that comes with an $8.5 million cap hit, this sure does seem like the end of an era. Shesterkin will undoubtedly be the starter next season as he and a cadre of exciting young players continue to find their way with New York. To be sure, this team has a lot of work to do—especially on the defensive end—but the future is bright.
And though the Rangers beat Carolina all four times during the regular season, this current iteration of the Hurricanes was simply kryptonite for a New York squad that played “two good periods out of nine” in the opinion of coach David Quinn.
“They’re structured and they were patient all series,” said Rangers center Mika Zibanejad. “We tried to do too much and didn’t really play as a five-man unit out there. Ultimately, they deserved to win the series.”
Aho’s line with Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov absolutely carved up the Rangers in the series, dwarfing the efforts of New York top guns such as Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin. And whether it was the acrobatic flashiness of Mrazek or the hold-the-fort scrambling of Reimer, Carolina got excellent goaltending in all three games.
So the Rangers exit stage left; the first team eliminated from the qualifying round. In a regular year they wouldn’t even have had a chance at the Stanley Cup, so it’s not much of an upset to see them go home early. But the potential of Lundqvist sparkling one more time—as he did when he willed the team to the Cup final way back in 2014—was always there, as Hollywood as it might have seemed.
In the end, his best saves couldn’t make up for the few he let in and his team could not match the execution and discipline shown by the Carolina Hurricanes. We’ll see Shesterkin get another chance to avenge his first NHL playoff loss in the future, but this series might have been it for Lundqvist. Long live the King.