Henrik Lundqvist faced live shots from players yesterday for the first time since Feb. 2. The first one was a wrister from Rick Nash that Lundqvist gloved easily. Scattered cheers came from Rangers on the ice, and Derick Brassard skated over to the veteran to offer a quick hug.

It was just about 10:30 Tuesday morning and No. 30 was back at Madison Square Garden.

For another 45 minutes, Lundqvist -- sufficiently recovered from the blood vessel injury in his neck -- caught and kicked out shots and deflections on rushes, and missed a few, too. Mats Zuccarello slyly put a puck in the cage behind Lundqvist when he wasn't looking.

"You could tell in the first couple of minutes, the guys were going really low on him," Brassard said. "When he made a couple good saves, guys were trying a little harder."

Afterward, Lundqvist said he was thrilled to take the next step to getting back between the pipes for a game and targeted his return for one of the Blueshirts' weekend games, either Saturday in Boston or against the Capitals at the Garden on Sunday.

"That's my goal," said Lundqvist, who last played against the Panthers before being shut down by doctors, who feared that playing might make him vulnerable to a stroke. "I need at least one or two more skates to work on my timing, I feel close. If you ask me, I wanted to play last week . . . I'm expecting to play this week, what day, I'm not sure."

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The next game is Thursday in Ottawa, and coach Alain Vigneault said it "would be a stretch" to say that Lundqvist will play against the Senators. But he did not rule out any weekend games, saying Lundqvist would travel and face shooters Wednesday and Thursday at practice.

With the last four weeks of conditioning, Lundqvist said that "physically, I feel really good. At this time of year, I'm probably in better shape than in a long time. I would say 85 percent [of goaltending] is mental, that's something in the next week I'm going to work on."

On Tuesday, the plan was simple. "I just wanted to work really hard and get extremely tired," he said. "I feel like my speed is there, my legs are there, it's more just mental, to have your focus right . . . I think I'm not going to feel perfect before the first game, you have to go out there and play and work your way back. I feel like I'm really close [on conditioning]; this week, we have just one or two practices, I'll do what I can to be in the right position in different situations."

Lundqvist wore a soft collar to provide support to the back of his neck, which he whiplashed when a deflected shot caught him in the throat after Ryan McDonagh's stick lifted the protective flap on the lower part of his mask against Carolina on Jan. 31.

Other than that, the differences weren't noticeable.

"He looked 'same old'," Nash said. "He didn't miss a beat."