GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Perhaps the most unpredictable best-of-seven series in the Stanley Cup playoffs are in the first round, and for the Rangers, this year’s narrative, which surely will be marked by twists and turns, began with some Monday.
Hopes were raised for the return of both an injured captain and a veteran defenseman, there was a false alarm for the No. 1 goaltender and the head coach said he is counting on “will” to neutralize skill. And it was just the first practice before the curtain rises on Game 1 in Pittsburgh on Wednesday night against the Penguins, whom Rangers coach Alain Vigneault called “probably the best team in the league since Christmas.”
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Actually, since Mike Sullivan went behind the bench Dec. 12, the Penguins have gone 33-16-5. But point taken.
On Monday, Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh, who is believed to have a small fracture in his right hand from blocking a shot a week ago, was the first player on ice, followed shortly by Dan Girardi, who missed the last two games of the regular season after his head struck the boards on a check by Tampa Bay’s Brian Boyle last Tuesday. As it turned out, McDonagh, who was holding a righthanded stick rather than his usual lefthanded one, didn’t skate long, and neither did Girardi.
Vigneault later ruled McDonagh out for Wednesday night and said Girardi is expected to skate with the full team Tuesday.
Midway through the session, Henrik Lundqvist unexpectedly left his net and skated to the boards, passed the string of water bottles at the bench and headed straight to the trainer’s room. Coaches scrambled and replaced him with a mesh “shooter tutor” as play continued. After 15 minutes, Lundqvist returned, took some shots during five-on-five play, then departed again.
“He just wasn’t feeling well, so I told him to get off the ice,” Vigneault said. “He’ll be fine tomorrow . . . It’s the flu . . . There was nothing that needed him to be out there today.”
Vigneault is well aware that this season’s edition of the Rangers can’t be compared to the first two seasons under his watch, with different players and different chemistry. “Was it as consistent as maybe we would have liked? Probably not,’’ he said. “That’s behind us. This is a new season. “
As he is wont to do, although the praise is warranted in this case, Vigneault pumped the tires on the Penguins’ “real sound defensive structure and real quick transition” and nemesis Sidney Crosby, who has 36 goals and 85 points.
“If he’s not the best player in the world, he’s pretty close to it. After a slow start point-wise, he’s been on a tear,” he said. “With their skill and speed, it’s going to be a big challenge. There’s certain things we’re going to have to do real well to take some of that speed and skill away. There’s experience on both sides; there’s a will on our side to get the job done.”
But this is all just groundwork. On Monday, the Rangers looked for Penguins tendencies on video and tried to counter on the ice, especially on special teams. “You can only emulate so much, though,” Marc Staal said. “We have to be ready Wednesday.”