Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.
PITTSBURGH — Henrik Lundqvist has been the security blanket Rangers fans wrap themselves in on cold, dark nights in their dens or the Garden for 11 seasons, a certainty in an uncertain world.
So it was natural for them to shudder Wednesday night at the sight of Lundqvist sprawled face down, soon to leave Game 1 of a first-round series against the Penguins with his right eye area swollen and immediate future in question.
But imagine the view from ice level, where Lundqvist’s teammates need him even more than you do, a guy who has led the franchise to 10 playoff berths in 11 years and is the assumption on which their Stanley Cup hopes are based.
Coach Alain Vigneault and the three players chosen to address reporters at the team hotel Thursday all maintained their hockey stoicism and insisted backup Antti Raanta would be fine if needed.
But they acknowledged that not all injuries are created equally.
“You’re not going to be able to fill those shoes,” Rick Nash said. “He’s won at every level. He’s been the face of this franchise. We just have to use that as a challenge.
“It’s not like everything is over. It’s just a matter of getting behind Raanta.”
Said Derek Stepan, “Obviously Henrik is a huge part of our group and it’s certainly a guy we rely on heavily. But it’s no different with Raants.
“We have more guys having to step up with Hank’s absence and Raants is a goaltender who’s played extremely for us down the stretch and we have 100 percent confidence in him.”
Wait: “Hank’s absence?”
It was clear listening to Nash, Stepan and Keith Yandle that the players are preparing to play without him in Game 2 Saturday. But Vigneault sounded cautiously optimistic that he might well return after seeing an eye specialist here.
We should know by noon Friday, because the coach said Lundqvist will not play if he does not practice.
So this could be a big deal or no deal at all, like when Lundqvist left practice on Monday with an illness. He was back the next day, but at age 34 every crack in the foundation becomes a concern.
Vigneault said that Lundqvist talked himself back into Game 1 after suffering the injury with 48.2 seconds left in the first, not wanting to put Raanta in a tough spot. About 30 seconds later, the Penguins scored the game’s first goal.
After the intermission, Lundqvist hit the showers and the Penguins hit the Rangers with a 5-2 defeat.
Stepan said the short-term psychological impact is less than outsiders might expect. “It’s a little different for you guys watching it,” he said, “but as a team your focus has to be on the rest of the game.
“You have to try as hard as you can to get yourself in a good state of mind to essentially finish the 40 minutes that are left.”
Fair enough. But there is no denying there will be both practical and emotional costs if Lundqvist is out.
The Rangers need look back no further than the 2014 Eastern Conference final, when Chris Kreider ran into the Canadiens’ star goaltender, Carey Price, in Game 1, and he was not heard from again. The Rangers won in six games.
In Lundqvist’s case, the injury was inflicted by the stick of a teammate, Marc Staal, who three years ago suffered a right eye injury of his own when he was hit in the face with a puck.
It does not appear Lundqvist’s case is nearly as serious as Staal’s was, but that’s easy to say when it’s not your eye.
Could Raanta beat the Penguins four times in the next six games? Theoretically possible. The Penguins’ backup, Jeff Zatkoff, filled in capably for Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 1. But that is not a good plan for the Blueshirts.
“It’s the same for both teams,” Vigneault said. “They didn’t have their top guy. We lost our top guy at the end of the first period. You have to just keep playing.”