Henrik Lundqvist: 'Pressure' of backstopping Team Sweden in best-on-best play is still a 'thrill'

ByRisto Pakarinen ESPN logo
Friday, September 9, 2016

GOTHENBURG, Sweden -- Henrik Lundqvist is fresh off the day's workout, an hour on the ice followed by a session at the gym. The New York Rangers goaltender has found a table in the back of the cafeteria at the Frolunda Indians practice center here. He's way in the back, where he can sit and eat his lunch in peace and quiet.

Except that he's being pitched a charity project.

The person making his pitch surely feels like he's the most important in the world at the moment, as Lundqvist is focused directly on him, seemingly oblivious to anything else taking place in the cafeteria. The man thanks him, they shake hands, and Lundqvist returns to his lunch.

He's dressed in black, from his New York Yankees cap to his T-shirt, to jeans -- fashionably ripped, just right -- all the way down to his shoes. On his left arm, he has a tattoo of the name and birthday of his first-born daughter, Charlise, and on the blocker side arm is an ode to his second daughter, Juli.

Maybe it has something to do with his age -- his dark beard now has a few gray hairs -- or maybe it's the fact that he's back in Gothenburg, eating the most Swedish of lunches, meatballs and mashed potatoes. But there's an aura of calmness around Lundqvist, 34.

He also looks fit, very fit.

"In my last years in Sweden, I weighed about 190 pounds," he says in Swedish. "Then, when I got to the NHL, I got a little heavier, year by year, until I was close to 200 pounds, where it stayed for years. My last three seasons I've been back at 190. And now I weigh 185 pounds, which I think is a good weight for me."

He says that focus on fitness has helped him keep pace an an ever-more demanding NHL.

"Playing in the league has become physically a lot tougher," says Lundqvist. "The young players who enter the league now are much better prepared for it, and the demands are simply higher. So you have to take care of yourself."

In 2012, Lundqvist -- who had been nominated in each of his first three seasons -- finally won the Vezina Trophy. He has been one of the best goalies in the world since he entered the NHL (and arguably even before that) in 2005. In fact, he had never finished outside the top six in Vezina voting since then. Until last season.

Lundqvist didn't get a single vote after the 2015-16 season, despite posting the seventh-best save percentage in the league and winning 35 games, tied for fourth in the league, while facing the most shots in the NHL. His save percentage, .920, was only .01 below his career average, and only once had he posted a better even-strength save percentage than last season's .934.

So why didn't he get any love for the Vezina? Maybe Lundqvist has raised the bar a little too high. Or maybe the GMs didn't vote after the regular season after all, because Lundqvist's postseason numbers weren't pretty. His playoffs save percentage was .867 and his goals-against average was 4.39.

Back in Gothenburg, he has made peace with the fact that the Rangers' season ended "way too early," as he puts it, with a first-round loss to thePittsburgh Penguins.

"It was difficult to analyze because overall, I was pretty happy with the way I played and there were some things that I did very well, but then we were steamrolled at the end. How do you grade that?" he says.

He's not looking back, but he's not looking too far forward, either.

That's also the one piece of advice the 34-year-old veteran goaltender would give the 23-year-old Henrik Lundqvist when he entered the league.

"Live in the now," he says. "Of course I had big dreams and goals, but that makes it easy to have expectations that are too high. Maybe you forget to enjoy what you have now. You have to live in the now to truly appreciate it, but also to get the most out of yourself.

"We [NHLers] have it good. It's fun to play and travel and I think I appreciate it more now than when I was younger," he adds.

That does sound like a wise man speaking. He's focused on the here and now. He has been to the Stanley Cup finals, and while he wants to get back -- and win -- more than anything, he realizes that he can't force his way back.

"It's silly to look too much ahead. You just try to reset everything," Lundqvist says. "It's a long journey there, and everything has to go our way, so you just wipe the slate clean and start from square one. And it's mentally consuming to think about the playoffs now. Right now, I think of the next few weeks and coming to the rink, working out well, working on the details of my game."

On Monday, Lundqvist reported to Team Sweden's World Cup camp held, conveniently for him, in Gothenburg. Just like with the Rangers, all eyes will be on Lundqvist when Tre Kronor begins play. In the last best-on-best tournament, the Sochi Olympics, Sweden reached the final, as Lundqvist played every single minute of the tournament and posted a respectable .943 save percentage.

"Playing under pressure is a part of being a goaltender, and it's inspiring to play well and be a decisive factor in the game," says Lundqvist, who also backstopped Sweden to an Olympic gold in Turin in 2006. "There's the pressure, but there's also the thrill of it."

His teammates during that run included Nicklas Lidstrom, Mats Sundinand Daniel Alfredsson. All three are now Team Sweden management advisers.

"I think it's fun to be with the national team. It's often a little polite in the beginning, very Swedish, but the longer we're together, the more we expect from each other," says Lundqvist. "You need the accountability to have save success."

It's players like Lundqvist who set the tone for the team that now also has a new coach, Rikard Gronborg, with experience coaching U.S. college hockey.

"He's very direct, very American in that way, and he knows and understands how the NHL players want to do things," says Lundqvist. "But for Sweden, the core concept is the importance of the group. Swedes always put the team first, regardless of the system we may play.

"We're brought up that way, but in the end, you have to win and you don't win by just having a close-knit group," he adds with a laugh.

The smile is still there, and appears quickly and often. The crow's feet add character to his movie-star looks. He might be older than all but one --Roberto Luongo-- of the goalies who did receive votes for Vezina last season, but he's still just 34. His two idols growing up were Patrick Roy and Dominik Hasek, and both were older than that when they won the Stanley Cup.

"Seasons do go by faster these days. Is it really my 12th NHL season?" he says. "That feels a little ... weird."