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It can only get better for Henrik Lundqvist

Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers defends

Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers defends against Milan Lucic of the Boston Bruins in the first period at the TD Garden on Saturday, March 28, 2015, in Boston. Credit: Getty Images / Jim Rogash

BOSTON - It took one final expanded, somewhat secretive practice to persuade coach Alain Vigneault to start Henrik Lundqvist on Saturday.

In retrospect, maybe Vigneault should have made the entire team practice Friday, given the Rangers' sloppy start in a 4-2 loss to the Bruins. "We didn't give him a lot of help early on," Vigneault said. "I thought he had a good second period, didn't have a lot of work in the third . . . but first game in a long time, he did the best he could."

The Rangers, who haven't had much practice time with their busy schedule, flew here from Ottawa on Friday morning. Rather than have only rehabbing Martin St. Louis shoot at Lundqvist on the scheduled day off, which had been the initial idea, the skate was expanded to include a half-dozen other Rangers.

The group went to TD Garden, and it was afterward that the decision was made to start Lundqvist on Saturday rather than Sunday at home against the Capitals. Cam Talbot, who played 23 games in Lundqvist's absence, will face Washington.

"[Lundqvist] came in with six or seven shooters, and told Ben [goalie coach Benoit Allaire] he was good to go," Vigneault said before the game. "I wanted to play him in one of the two games on the weekend,'' and because there will be no morning skate or practice before Sunday's 3 p.m. game, he said, "I just felt it was the smartest thing to do."

On the trip to the arena from the team hotel, Vigneault said: "I told him on the bus to just go out, work hard and have fun."

After being hit in the throat by a deflected shot against Carolina on Jan. 31, Lundqvist was advised by doctors to rest and ease back into a game routine. He then was shut down completely after the discovery of a blood vessel injury in his neck, which could have led to a stroke.

He started on-ice drills by himself in the crease. Then assistant coaches Allaire and Darryl Williams took low shots with plastic street hockey balls and gradually moved to pucks, still keeping their shots low. After Lundqvist was cleared medically, the process evolved into taking shots from players. He had his first full practice with the team Wednesday and backed up Talbot on Thursday in Ottawa.

"He's been on the ice working hard since the second week [after being sidelined],'' Vigneault said before Saturday's game. "He feels good. I feel good about what I've seen. I'm sure his teammates will be ready to help him out."

He was wrong on that count, but Vigneault did correctly acknowledge that after such a long layoff -- the longest of the 33-year-old's career -- Lundqvist's timing would be challenged by the pace of the game.

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