LOS ANGELES — It looked like vintage Henrik Lundqvist.
The leather flashed and Lundqvist gloved a sizzling rebound ticketed for the net, eliciting exclamations and applause from a contingent of fans wearing Blueshirts jerseys at the Kings practice center, where young figure skaters twirled on an adjacent rink.
“Yeah, it looks like a great save,” Lundqvist said in the small locker room afterward. “But to me, I’m not moving the way I should, that’s why I have to make that save. I’ve got to be quicker on my feet. But the last couple days, it’s been good.”
After sitting out eight games with a hip strain, Lundqvist returns against the Ducks in Anaheim on Sunday, and as has been the case for years, much is riding on the Swedish star’s shoulders as winter turns to spring.
Before the injury, Lundqvist was on a roll: 12-5-1, with a 2.26 goals-against-average, a .930 save percentage and a shutout in his last 19 appearances.
“We’re going to need Henrik to be Henrik down the stretch here,” said Derek Stepan. “As you can see around the league, the most important player most times is the goaltender. So we need Henrik to be strong. He works so hard and competes so hard that I expect nothing but the best.”
To be sure, Lundqvist knows the stakes. At 35, another journey in the Stanley Cup playoffs looms. And on Friday, he recalled when he returned from a career-threatening injury and much longer layoff before the postseason.
On Jan. 31, 2015, he was struck in the throat by a shot from Carolina forward Brad Malone, snapping his neck back, and although he remained in the game, he was later diagnosed with a torn blood vessel and shut down for seven weeks. He missed 25 games.
“I remember the first game, coming back, you can’t expect to feel perfect right away,” Lundqvist said. “You have to work yourself into feeling good, take it game-by-game, try to grow your game and your confidence. I think from going through this before, it’s one or two games and then you’re feeling pretty good. I think the first game you might be a little rusty, but like I said, compete and the rest will take care of itself . . . so I’m not worried about that.”
Two years ago, Lundqvist lost that first game, allowing four goals in Boston, then won five of the next six, allowing just a dozen goals. Again, that was following a far more serious injury and extended absence.
Lundqvist is three victories away from tying Glenn Hall (407) for ninth place on the all-time wins list — as if he needs a distraction while trying to fine tune his game as the playoffs approach. “Everybody’s starting to feel it,” he said. “But you try to focus on the here and now.”
Before the season, coach Alain Vigneault said that in an ideal world, based on research of goaltenders making deep runs in the playoffs, he wanted to limit Lundqvist to about 60 starts to be fresh. Although a late-season injury isn’t ideal, that target will be attained.
With seven games left, Vigneault said, Lundqvist will play five or six of them. Will be enough to reclaim the level he needs?
“If that’s what I’m getting, it has to work,” Lundqvist said with a grin. “I don’t have another choice.”
DECISIONS ON DEFENSE
If Kevin Klein, who has missed 15 games with back spasms, plays Sunday in Anaheim, or Tuesday in San Jose (Vigneault hadn’t decided on Friday), it will be only the first tough call that the coach has to make with nine healthy defensemen.
“That’s an area where guys have room for improvement,” he said. “I’ve always felt that internal competition is good, it brings the best out of people.”
Vigneault needs to determine if the experienced Klein, a valuable asset as a righty and on the penalty kill, but whose play has slowed this season, can stay in the starting six.
Until he scored twice on Feb. 11, he had just one goal on the season and noticeable defensive lapses.
With Klein in the lineup, who comes out, at least for a game? There are two natural lefties currently playing the right side: Nick Holden and Brendan Smith. Or maybe Marc Staal could use a breather.
Holden, acquired from Colorado last June, has played in 75 games, and already established a career high in assists and points (10-21-31). He leads Rangers defensemen in goals and hits. But he has not been sharp recently.
Smith was just acquired at the trade deadline and has played 12 games. Spares Adam Clendening and Steven Kampfer may not get in a game until the Rangers clinch a playoff berth.
Check your passports. It certainly appears that the Rangers, assuming they retain their double-digit lead for the first wild-card berth in the East, will be starting the first round in Canada, either in Montreal or Ottawa, whichever club wins the Atlantic Division.
They’ve only faced Canadian teams in the first round twice since 1996: Montreal that season and advancing in six games, and in 2012 against Ottawa, advancing in seven.
It would seem that the Canadiens have the easier schedule down the stretch: They play three more home games and four on the road, but none against teams currently in the playoffs. The Senators play six of the last eight on the road, and look at their final two: The Rangers visit Canadian Tire Centre on April 8, and the Senators come to Brooklyn on the 9th to close the regular season.
The Blueshirts were 0-2-1, with a shootout loss, against the Habs this season. They split the first two games against the Senators, a 2-0 loss and a 4-3 win, both at home.