The Rangers’ first playoff practice Monday afternoon in Greenburgh nearly scared their entire fan base stiff.
Henrik Lundqvist left the ice six minutes into practice at 12:06 p.m., forcing his teammates to tie a target around the posts in the starter’s crease for 14 minutes. When Lundqvist returned, he lasted only six more minutes before coach Alain Vigneault ordered him off ice for good at 12:26 p.m.
Tim Webb, the club’s special assistant to the equipment manager, raced down the hall, strapped on gear and replaced Lundqvist, certainly earning himself at least one free meal one night this week in Pittsburgh.
Lundqvist “just wasn’t feeling well,” Vigneault said later, but it was an agonizingly nervous hour before the coach provided that assurance, to say the least.
“(Lundqvist) tried for the first little part, and then I just told him to get off the ice,” Vigneault said. “He’ll be fine tomorrow. (The ailment was) nothing that we needed him to be out there (and fight through) today.”
The third-seed Rangers (46-27-9, 101 points) already must open this first-round series against the second-seed Penguins (48-26-8, 104 points) Wednesday night without captain Ryan McDonagh, an unquantifiable loss. Vigneault confirmed that his top defenseman will miss at least Game 1, after skating before practice without touching his stick with his reportedly broken right hand.
Losing Lundqvist, though, would be catastrophic, despite that forwards Eric Staal, Viktor Stalberg and Mats Zuccarello all are healthy enough to play and defenseman Dan Girardi is just Tuesday’s full practice away.
Henrik Lundqvist posts a 2.48 goals against average for the Rangers this season.
Pens No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury returned to practice Monday and reportedly is symptom-free from the concussion that sidelined him since March 31. Pittsburgh is the NHL’s hottest team, winning 14 of 16 down the stretch, and Lundqvist is the X-factor behind the Blueshirts’ confidence in the face of that adversity.
He was one of the central figures in the Rangers’ 2014 second-round comeback from a 3-1 series deficit against the Penguins when – as the Daily News reported earlier this season – Pittsburgh was not worried about losing to the Rangers and dreaded only the then-mighty Boston Bruins at their own peril.
Lundqvist also backstopped last year’s five-game elimination of the Pens in the first round, and on the flip side, went viral this season by tossing his net off its moorings at CONSOL Energy Center to alert the officials he was injured.
Fleury called Lundqvist’s antics after the 4-1 Penguins win “baby stuff.” Pittsburgh won three of the team’s four meetings this season, all from Feb. 10 on. This rivalry is heated and it will only get more intense, particularly the head-to-head battle between Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, along with Lundqvist in the middle of it all.
Crosby, the famous Garden villain, shoved Lundqvist back in March 2010 after the Rangers goalie accused him of embellishing a fall from a Marc Staal shove, setting off a melee.
In the memorable 2014 playoff series, Crosby bumped Lundqvist in the head with his elbow in Game 3, and Staal cross-checked Crosby in the head in Games 3 and 4. Crosby then speared Dominic Moore in the groin in Game 6, leading Lundqvist to squirt water on the Pens’ top center.
“I think there was a bounty on my head,” Staal said Monday. “As a team, though, when you’re playing well, you’re playing hard defensively and you try to frustrate your opponent. That’s no different with Sid, (Evgeni) Malkin, (Kris) Letang, (Phil) Kessel – those guys want room and need room to create.
“And when we’re doing a good job of stifling them, that emotion and competitiveness just comes out,” Staal said, adding confidently: “And it’s gonna be no different again this series.”
Sure it will. As long as Lundqvist is in net.