The goaltending clash between Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist is the best storyline of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and nobody cares about it.
What comes to mind when you think about the first week of the postseason? Dart Guy? The Washington Capitals choking again? Matt Calvert mugging Tom Kuhnhackl? Leon Draisaitl's attempt to prevent Chris Tierney from reproducing? That Erik Karlsson pass to Mike Hoffman? Zach Werenski's remodeled face? Jake Allen being possessed by the younger spirit of Martin Brodeur? The Chicago Blackhawks being shoved out the door by the Nashville Predators? The high volume of overtimes and exciting finishes?
These are all wonderful distractions, but the Montreal Canadiens-New York Rangers series has featured four outstanding duels between two goaltenders who are the best of their generation in Price and Lundqvist. And nobody seems to notice.
It's even an afterthought in its own series. Two potential Hall of Fame goaltenders at the top of their games, and the biggest story of the first four games has been what, Tanner Glass? Alain Vigneault playing a cat-and-mouse game with his line combinations before Game 3? Alex Galchenyuk going from the fourth line to the third line? Nick Holden coming in and out of the lineup for Kevin Klein? Andrew Shaw catching a puck on his stick after flipping high in the air? What in the world are we doing here?
Lundqvist and Price are the only two goaltenders playing head-to-head in the first round with save percentages better than .940 through four games (.944 and .942, respectively). They have combined to allow 15 goals—Lundqvist with eight, Price with seven—and there isn't a single gaffe goal between them. If boxing were still a thing, this is where you'd hear about how Lundqvist and Price are two heavyweight fighters going toe-to-toe while absorbing each other's best punches. But since this is 2017, let's say this is an epic esports battle between two giant wizards casting their fiercest spells, with neither able to crack through the other's protection potions. Or something.
A magical wizard on the ice. Photo by Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports
Lundqvist is 35 years old, and since the end of last season, people have questioned whether the five-time Vezina finalist is nearing the end of his career. There was reason to believe that he was no longer capable of covering the flaws of his teammates like he had in years past. With a group of defensemen in front of him who are so bad that Holden/Klein is a real storyline, he finished the 2016-17 season with a career-worst .911 save percentage.
Yet now that we're in the playoffs, Lundqvist is once again making the Rangers look better than they actually are. He only received one goal of support (besides the empty-netter) in Game 1, so he allowed zero. In Game 2, the Canadiens needed 58 shots to get a fourth goal past Lundqvist. In Game 3, well, the Rangers forgot to show up. But in Game 4, when the Canadiens had two breakaways in the first period as they looked to take a 3-1 series lead, there was Lundqvist to bail out what would easily be a top-ten defense corps in the AHL and tie the series instead.
At the other end of the ice, the 29-year-old (God, is he really 29 already?) Price is matching Lundqvist save for save. One goal in Game 1. Seventeen saves in the third period and overtime of Game 2 as the Canadiens rallied to win. Less than three minutes from his own shutout in Game 3 before a fluky bounce ruined it. And one bounce off the skate of Andrei Markov that was even flukier made the difference in his team's Game 4 loss.
Gotchya! Photo by Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports
While Lundqvist is desperately attempting to keep the championship window open in the twilight of his career, Price is maybe-not-as-desperately trying to guide the Canadiens to a place they haven't reached since the days of Patrick Roy in a magical time known as "the 90s." Price's tenure in Montreal has been marred by injury and comparisons to that one time Jaroslav Halak got the Habs to a conference finals. Only now he's healthy, and while this isn't a showdown between a young upstart and aging legend, getting the better of Lundqvist while both goaltenders are playing at an elite level could do wonders for his reputation in Montreal.
And yet somehow, Canadiens assistant coach Dan LaCroix watching a practice once has been a bigger deal during this series? Really?
It's so rare to get a genuine one-on-one competition like this in a team sport where players are on the ice for 45 seconds at a time. Even when Alex Ovechkin goes against Sidney Crosby, they rarely find themselves on the ice together at the same time. The best it gets with skaters is when an elite defenseman shadows a top scorer, but even then, it's more about that top scorer's line than the top scorer himself.
So let's embrace the marquee goaltenders at the top of their games making brilliant save after brilliant save. Just because the NHL markets no more than three individuals per season doesn't mean we shouldn't be glued to this series. It's like Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning, only Price and Lundqvist haven't endorsed a con man for president, or tried to sell you overpriced gluten-free food through the mail, never mind bad pizza.
Besides, there's no telling when this will all come to an end.
(This is less about the ages of the goaltenders and more about Chris Kreider or Rick Nash taking out Price early in Game 5 on Thursday.)
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