NEW YORK -- The long lightning bolt that cracked behind him as he tossed the tennis ball up in the air Thursday night was symbolic of Henrik Lundqvist's return to New York City after a summer in Sweden.
It was electric. It was energetic. So was Lundqvist.
"Going back to Sweden, that's where I recharge," Lundqvist said. "You see family, friends. I had a great summer. It went by pretty fast, but coming back to New York is always a good feeling. You get a break for two months and you start missing the city, your friends here, the team and teammates. It's always a good feeling to come back."
Lundqvist returned to New York on Wednesday and approximately 24 hours later the still jet-lagged former Vezina Trophy winner was playing in a celebrity charity tennis match at Sportime Randall's Island Tennis Center.
He teamed with his close friend and the Association of Tennis Professionals' former No. 1 men's player, John McEnroe, to play against the ATP's current No. 1 men's player, Novak Djokovic, and former Academy Award nominee Edward Norton in a match benefitting the Johnny Mac Tennis Project, which introduces tennis to kids in the greater New York area by providing scholarships, coaching and financial assistance.
Lundqvist played almost as much tennis as he did hockey growing up in Sweden. He got back into the sport six years ago and now uses it as a way to train in the offseason. He said the quick side-to-side and up-and-down movements he makes on the court require him to use the same muscles as he does in the crease.
"One-on-one, it's a great battle, but also the physical aspect," Lundqvist said. "It's a perfect fit for me when it comes to training."
When the lightning bolt cracked behind him, briefly lighting up the dark sky and sending only a scattered few scared fans for cover, Lundqvist was tossing the ball up to serve to Djokovic, a seven-time Grand Slam title winner and the favorite in men's singles in the upcoming U.S. Open.
While Lundqvist got a reminder of his fame in New York on Thursday as the crowd chanted his name the way they do at Madison Square Garden ("HEN-reek, HEN-reek"), he called playing against Djokovic a "surreal" moment in his life, one he feels he would only be able to experience here.
"It's New York," Lundqvist said. "I talk about it all the time, you play in New York you get a chance to meet people and get to know people. If I played anywhere else it's probably a tougher situation. It's a lot of fun."
Lundqvist entertained by playing to the crowd, signing autographs, posing for pictures and auctioning off special ticket packages to Rangers games that went for $10,000 each. Earlier in the day, he made his first trip to New York's suburban training facility since leaving town a few days after losing to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final.
He spent the offseason in his native Sweden trying to move on from a disappointing finish to the most exciting and challenging of his nine seasons in New York. His first trip back to the MSG Training Center was the next step in turning his attention to his 10th season, and the beginning of a seven-year, $59.5 million contract extension he signed last winter.
"Every day now you start thinking about the upcoming season, about how to prepare yourself and how to get ready," Lundqvist said. "You still have a few days where you don't think about hockey, but you can tell it's getting closer."
The final vision of Lundqvist last season was of him lying flat on his stomach, face down as behind him the Kings kicked off their summer-long Stanley Cup celebration by mobbing double-overtime hero Alec Martinez, whose goal in Game 5 gave Los Angeles its second Cup championship in three years. Lundqvist slowly rose to his knees, looked up, and eventually skated off.
Minutes later he was sitting quietly, stiff, almost as if he was in a trance in front of his locker as the media filtered around him, trying to capture the story of the Rangers' championship bid that fell short.
Lundqvist was haunted by Martinez's rebound goal for a while, and there's no way he'll ever forget the sequence that led to it, but he now insists that his summer in Sweden allowed him to properly reflect on everything from last season so he could begin the process of starting over.
"You have to move on," he said. "I think the first reaction is just disappointment and it's an empty feeling, but then you start to process everything. You start to think about all the good things you experienced, and there were so many throughout the playoffs that you appreciate now. When you beat a team and you move on, that's an exciting feeling."
Lundqvist said he has no regrets about the way it ended last season.
"You want to make sure when you get in that position you leave everything out there, and I feel as a team we did," he said. "A couple bounces here and there in the Final, I think it could have been a different story. We played an extremely good team and to beat them I think we needed that little extra puck luck, but the posts were against us in overtime in every game out in L.A. But again, it was a great experience the whole run we had. And also the season -- it was a challenging start and to overcome that, to turn everything around and start playing the way we did in the second half of the season, it was fun to be a part of."
Lundqvist mentions the challenging start to last season because that, more than the Cup Final and what the Rangers almost won, is on his mind now.
He struggled early last season, going 12-16-3 with a .907 save percentage and 2.76 goals-against average in 32 appearances from Oct. 3 - Jan. 6. He had excuses -- a coaching change that led to a system change, a change in the length of his pads because of NHL regulations, and ongoing contract negotiations -- and didn't use any of them as a reason for his struggles.
Lundqvist rebounded and finished the regular season with a .920 save percentage and 2.36 GAA before improving those numbers in the Stanley Cup Playoffs to .927 and 2.14, but he has focused his offseason training on avoiding a repeat of his rocky start.
"I think it's important that you don't think too much about last season or already now start thinking about how we want to win, we want to be in the playoffs, because there is so much work that needs to be done before you get there," Lundqvist said. "You just need to be focused on October and the first few games because the start we had last year shows that if everything is not in place early on it can be very challenging."
Lundqvist is back in New York early to try to make sure everything will be in place for another run at the Cup.
He's a celebrity here. He's referred to as "The King." He regularly hears his name chanted, as he did again Thursday. But Friday morning he was back up at the Training Center, working on his game, on moving forward, without the fanfare.
The season is inching closer. The Rangers' star goalie can feel it.
"Being back in New York and going back up to the Training Center," Lundqvist said, "it's definitely slowly putting your mind to where it needs to be when the season starts."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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