Henrik Lundqvist found out Friday night that he would be the man in goal when the Rangers faced off against the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 1 of their play-in series as the NHL restarted its 2019-20 season Saturday in Toronto.
Lundqvist, the franchise leader in playoff appearances, wasn’t initially supposed to get the start, he said later, but when Igor Shesterkin, the 24-year-old Russian who had taken over as the Rangers’ No. 1 goalie this season, was unable to play, Lundqvist got the call.
The last-minute change didn’t faze the Hurricanes. Carolina scored the game’s first goal just 61 seconds after the opening faceoff and went on to beat Lundqvist and the Rangers, 3-2, to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series.
“Unfit to play, so we're not sure whether he'll be ready for game Game 2,’’ coach David Quinn said of Shesterkin in the post-game Zoom conference call.
The Rangers play Games 2 and 3 back-to-back Monday and Tuesday. Shesterkin is officially listed as “unfit to play’’ under the NHL’s new non-disclosure policy on injury/illness.
If Shesterkin — who cameras showed watching the game from the seats of Scotiabank Arena —can’t play, then Lundqvist, who played in his 129th playoff game, is likely to go again. It would be quite the turn of events after he had fallen to No. 3 on the goaltending depth chart in the regular season behind Shesterkin and No. 2 Alexandar Georgiev.
As for the loss, Quinn bemoaned the Rangers' start.
“For the first 30 minutes, we were slow,’’ Quinn said. “I didn't think we really played at a (fast) pace; they set the pace and the tempo, and I thought it took us too long to respond.’’
Playing their first competitive game since March 11, a span of more than four-and-a-half months, the Rangers were stunned in the opening minute when old friend Brady Skjei — whom the Rangers dealt to Carolina at the trade deadline in February — blasted Blueshirts forward Jesper Fast within seconds of his stepping onto the ice. With Fast apparently injured, Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin went behind Fast to redirect a pass from Teuvo Teravainen over Lundqvist’s stick shoulder on the game’s first shot on goal. Fast left the ice and did not return.
Lundqvist shrugged that goal off and played well, making 34 saves, several of them big-time stops, to keep the Rangers in the game. The Rangers were outshot, 37-26 and fell behind, 2-0 and 3-1. Sebastian Aho, on a power play, and Martin Necas, on a shot that deflected off the skate of Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, scored the other goals for the Hurricanes.
Mika Zibanejad and Staal (shorthanded) scored the Rangers goals. But the Rangers went 0-for-7 on the power play in a physical, and tightly called, game.
“I feel like they out-competed us, really,’’ Zibanejad said, when asked about the power play’s struggles. “We didn't really click. I didn't think we were able to get on the same page. We had some okay chances, but we couldn't establish a good power play and get some momentum from it.’’
Lundqvist started just one of the Rangers’ last 18 games before the NHL paused play because of the coronavirus on March 12, and that came during a two-week stretch where Shesterkin was out of action with a cracked rib suffered in a car accident.
Lundqvist returned home to Sweden during the pause, where the country did not have any kind of coronavirus lockdown and he had access to gyms to work out and ice to skate on the entire time he was there. When the Rangers restarted training camp on July 13, Lundqvist said he felt he was in a better place physically, mentally and technically. And he played well in the two-week camp before the team headed to Toronto last Sunday.
“I approached this camp to just be ready for anything,’’ the 38-year-old Lundqvist said. “Come well prepared, work hard, and whatever they ask me to do, I'll be ready for it. Obviously, the plan was to play Igor and last night, they told me I was going in. Things like that happen. I feel for Igor, and we'll see what happens in the next couple of days, but I'm just happy I got an opportunity to play, and I enjoy it.’’