DALLAS — The Rangers have missed the old Henrik Lundqvist and the new version of old Rick Nash. Fortunately for them, both made the trip to Dallas.
Nash — enjoying a bounce-back season but sidelined since Dec. 6 with a groin injury — scored on a shorthanded breakaway in the third period and Mats Zuccarello added an empty-net goal with 1:04 left to give the Rangers a 2-0 win over the Stars on Thursday night.
Lundqvist made 27 saves in a triumphant return that nearly was cut short after a hit by Cody Eakin at 9:19 of the first period — one that forced the goalie to leave the ice to undergo the concussion protocol before he returned as good as ever.
Eakin leveled Lundqvist behind the net while the goalie’s head was down as he tried to retrieve the puck. Lundqvist’s helmet flew off, he went down and he struggled to get to his feet before falling to his knees again. Eakin, who executed the hit with 51 seconds left in a Rangers power play, was given a five-minute major for charging and a game misconduct. “I didn’t see him coming at all,” said Lundqvist, who sat out only 5:31.
“I was coming in pretty fast, trying to create some energy, and my intention was to go for the puck,” Eakin said. “Obviously, it was not to make contact with him or his head. The collision carried me a little bit off my feet.”
Stars coach Lindy Ruff said there was no intent. “As a penalty-killer, he’s trying to gain speed so he can get back,” he said. “I watched the play and Henrik was off the wall originally and I think he just mishandled it for a second. When he went to go play it, he went into the wall. Cody said he was just trying to jump by him. I know it doesn’t look like that.”
Said Alain Vigneault, “The league better do something about that hit. It’s everything that you want to take away from the game — hit to the head, forward motion and it’s a goaltender on top. If that happens in the playoffs and your goaltender has got to go out of the net, they better do something about that.”
Less than a minute into the penalty kill, Nash intercepted a drop pass, skated in and beat Antti Niemi (28 saves) at 7:08 of the third for his 12th goal. He has 19 points in 28 games, a far cry from last season, when he had 15 goals and 21 assists in 60 games.
Afterward, Nash lauded Lundqvist. “I don’t want to say we expected it from him, but he’s our best player and he’s one of the best goalies in the world,” he said. “I’m not really surprised he comes back with that effort.”
The hit on Lundqvist seemed hard enough to level even the toughest player, but recent events likely played a role in his determination to return.
Lundqvist is having his worst season. He had sat out four straight games, and entering Thursday night, he had a 2.55 goals-against average and .912 save percentage.
Meanwhile, Antti Raanta’s performance this season — particularly those last four games, in which he allowed a total of three goals and had two shutouts — has raised questions about something that had been a certainty.
“I went out there with a lot of desperation,” Lundqvist said. “My approach, I felt like it was an important game for me to just feel good. My game hasn’t changed over a week but my mindset changed a little bit. Everything that’s been going on, it’s a new experience.”
All that, and it took only nine minutes for his return to be put in jeopardy. “It’s just one game, but it felt good to go out there,” he said. “When you sit, you miss the game a lot — especially when you miss four games.”