Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

GREENBURGH, N.Y. - If there were a captain's "C" that represented all New York-area athletes, you could do a lot worse than sewing it onto the sweater of Henrik Lundqvist, the impossible-to-dislike Swede who capably minds nets for the Rangers.

King Henrik has been a rock of stability on and off the ice, clinging to his prime at age 33 and back in the playoffs after leading the Rangers on a run into the middle of last June.

But things got a little complicated on the road back to the postseason, in the form of an absence from game action between Feb. 2 and March 28 because of a sprained blood vessel in his neck.

Lundqvist returned in time to play seven games, winning five, and appears to be back in form.

So as well as Cam Talbot played in his absence, it was comforting for the Rangers to see Lundqvist in his pads and cooling down at his locker after his first postseason practice Tuesday, insisting all is well.

"I feel ready, mentally and physically," he said.

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Compared with his normal state at this time of year, he said he feels more fresh, something that could help down the road. But he also said he lacks the customary rhythm built up over a long season.

So overall, it's pretty much a wash.

Most importantly, Lundqvist said he played enough games to feel as if the long layoff is long ago. The first couple of games back, he found himself expending extra energy to prepare; now he is into a routine.

The only psychological hurdle came not in games but in his first few practices, when he was conscious of pucks that threatened his neck area.

"I was definitely thinking about not getting hit high," he said. "It still happens every practice, but I just got more and more comfortable for each practice with the speed and with the shots."


After returning, Lundqvist did not go more than three days without a game.

"Playing more helps you get into that zone," he said. "That was a big thing for me, to just get more games, get the routines and play under some pressure."

There will be no shortage of pressure on the Rangers, especially in a first-round series against the Penguins that most of the hockey world expects them to win comfortably.

And given how Talbot played when Lundqvist was out, if the Rangers struggle, some fans inevitably will call for the King to be dethroned.

Anything is possible in the hockey playoffs, but only a truly desperate situation would cause coach Alain Vigneault to pull that trigger.

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For now, he is just happy to have Lundqvist in uniform. He said he never doubted his goalie would be fine after shaking off some rust.

When someone asked the coach whether the two-month break might turn out to be a blessing in disguise if the Rangers play into late spring, he laughed and said he appreciated the positive spin. Then he said he hopes that is what happens.

Lundqvist also laughed when asked whether the injury might turn into a benefit.

"We'll see; ask me in two months," he said. "Right now, it's just focus on the first game and try to build off of that. Hopefully, we can play for a long time and then I'm positive that it will help me."