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The King Is Dead, Long Live the King

This might be Henrik Lundqvist’s last appearance in St. Louis, and the NHL’s review system still stinks.

NHL: New York Rangers at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

This story first appeared on Page 5 (The Five Hole) of the Jan. 11, 2020 edition of the St. Louis Game Time paper, sold outside of every Blues home game. For more information or to subscribe, email gtbradlee@gmail.com

The oft-cited statistic is that on the morning on Jan. 3, 2019, the Blues were dead-last in the NHL. That night, they beat Washington, four nights later Jordan Binnington shut out Philadelphia, and the rest is beautiful history. But Jan. 3 was not the true low-point of the season. That distinction goes to the game before the beatdown of the Capitals, the last game the Blues lost before the now-famous date.

On Dec. 31, 2018, these same New York Rangers were in town. The coaching change hadn’t changed much of anything. The Blues’ season was practically over.

I was in Memphis with family and friends, ostensibly to see Mizzou’s Liberty Bowl matchup against Oklahoma St., but mostly to party on Beale Street. Following the Blues had become a slog, and watching that night’s game against the Rangers was the absolute last thing I wanted to do on New Year’s Eve. Out of nothing more than duty I pulled it up when I got back, totally drunk, to my AirBnB at 3:00 a.m.

Henrik Lundqvist made it worth it, in a way. He stood on his head, stopping 39 shots and dragging the Rags team to a 2-1 win. Whatever modicum of hope remained for a Blues turnaround seemed lost. If they couldn’t beat a so-so team, at home, while outshooting them 40-23, the season really was dead.

And yet, here we are.

Five thoughts right through the very heart of it.

1. It would be nice to see King Henrik in the net tonight.

Igor Shesterkin is in the process of taking the starting job on Broadway. Alexandar Georgiev is there, too, and looks like a solid, if unspectacular, goalie. Hank is 37, has endured 881 NHL games, and finally is beginning to show it.

His career began at the worst time for a goaltender: 2005-06, when offense spiked after the season-long lockout of 2004-05. As a rookie, he finished fourth in save percentage. In each of his first TEN seasons in the league, he finished in the top six of the Vezina vote. He put up a ridiculous seven consecutive seasons at 92.0 or above.

Henrik Lundqvist is a surefire hall-of-famer. In case he doesn’t have too many trips back through St. Louis, here’s hoping Blues fans can give him a nice send-off.

2. Lundqvist was at the center of a fun moment in hockey history.

His only Stanley Cup Final appearance was in 2014, when his Rangers lost in five to Los Angeles. In Game 4, the only game the Rangers won, a potentially game-tying puck trickled through his legs late in the game. A tiny buildup of ice along the goal line stopped it just in time.

Lundqvist had mentioned earlier in the series that “Puck Luck” wasn’t going the Rangers’ way. Barry Petchesky at Deadspin (RIP) went off on the idea of luck in a column I bookmarked and refer to often:

“‘Luck’ is hockey’s bullshit dump,” he wrote. “It’s the taxonomy of our inadequacies. Luck is really just a word for causal determinism on a level too micro for us to measure. A puck bounces a certain way or a player loses an edge in a crucial moment because of high-level collision physics, not because of true randomness. But we can’t see it, we can’t count it, we can’t even philosophically come to terms with the fact that something so weird and unexpected as a puck coming to rest in “a little miniature snow fort” is simple cause and effect, and quite literally had to happen.”

3. Another game, another waved-off goal.

When Jaden Schwartz’s second-period goal was called back because Jordan Kyrou (again) was offside, you could see how frustrated Craig Berube was with the whole process (see 1:06 in the above video). Offside review was meant to eliminate egregious, Matt-Duchene-level missed calls, not skates that are an inch off the ice.

4. Even with a two-goal lead on Thursday, the Blues were forechecking.

The best way to protect a lead is to add to it — or at least keep the puck out of your own zone. Yet, NHL teams tend to retreat into defensive shells when leading. If Berube wants to make it his M.O. to stay aggressive, it would make him one of the most innovative coaches in the league.

5. The only drama when up big? Binnington’s save percentage.

It didn’t really matter on Thursday night whether the Blues won 5-1 or 5-2, but we’re drawing ever closer to knowing #50’s true talent level. Do we have an adequate, 91.5 goalie on our hands? A very good 91.8 goalie? A 92.1 perennial all-star? Every shot he faces — even the ones in the third period of a blowout — is more information.

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If you enjoyed this story — and even if you didn’t — you should check out my book, Ticketless: How Sneaking Into The Super Bowl And Everything Else (Almost) Held My Life Together.