GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist isn't ready to say it yet, but the vascular injury to his neck and subsequent seven-week absence from early February to late March could turn into one of the best things to happen to him and the New York Rangers this season.
"We'll see; ask me in two months," Lundqvist said Tuesday. "Hopefully we can play for a long time and then I'm positive that it will help me."
Lundqvist said he feels fresh physically and mentally entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which open for the Rangers on Thursday at Madison Square Garden in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Pittsburgh Penguins (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports, ROOT, MSG).
How he feels has a lot to do with the fact that he started 46 games in the regular season, including seven in the final 15 days; he averaged 66 per season in his previous eight full NHL seasons.
Lundqvist said he got enough starts after returning from his injury March 28 to feel like he's in the rhythm he wants to be in entering the playoffs. He went 5-2-0 with a 2.27 goals-against average and .924 save percentage in that span. He allowed 12 goals in six starts after allowing four on 30 shots in his return game against the Boston Bruins.
"To tell you the truth I wasn't worried at all," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "Throughout the injury I was talking to Benoit [Allaire, goalie coach], who was working with Hank [Lundqvist]. The feedback I was getting was that he was looking good, his conditioning was real high, and probably all he needed was a couple periods to find his rhythm. After every game I took the time to have a quick little chat with him and he was feeling better, seeing the puck better, tracking it.
Being back for playoffs was always Lundqvist's goal after he was forced out of the lineup Feb. 4 because of the vascular injury, which Lundqvist referred to as a sprained blood vessel, a result of getting hit in the throat by a shot Jan. 31. Lundqvist said he was told that if he played before he healed he would be in danger of having a stroke.
There was no easy way for Lundqvist to take that news, and there was nothing he could do for at least two weeks. He wasn't allowed to skate, wasn't allowed to work out.
This was the first time Lundqvist had to miss time with a significant injury. Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, who has come back from a career-threatening eye injury, was there to talk the goalie through the worst of it.
"I thought he handled it pretty well making sure he wasn't getting too down and to make sure he's doing the right things to get back," Staal said. "I talked to him about that; the quicker you accept the fact that it's going to be X amount of time the better you can deal with it."
Lundqvist initially was cleared to begin light workouts and to face low shots. When he was allowed to face high shots he had to overcome the mental hurdle that came with handling pucks near his shoulders, head, and throat. That was a stressful part of his rehab.
"When they told me I was OK to go with the high shots I remember the first three, four practices I definitely was thinking about not getting hit high," Lundqvist said. "It still happened every practice but I just got more and more comfortable for each practice with the speed and with the shots."
He didn't return to practice until a morning skate March 24. He practiced twice before playing in Boston.
Lundqvist made 32 saves in a 3-2 win at the Winnipeg Jets three nights after allowing four goals on 30 shots in Boston. There were signs in Winnipeg that Lundqvist was back to being himself.
"You just know when he gets into those zones and he's stopping pucks," Staal said. "He kind of gets up on top of his crease on his toes and he makes like four or five in a row where he is just hunting the puck all over the place and you can see he's fired up. I saw that in that game and it was just like, 'Oh man.' It happened quicker than I thought it would to be honest."
Lundqvist improved from there, with 26 saves in a 3-2 win at the Minnesota Wild two nights after defeating the Jets. He made 35 saves in a 6-1 win against the New Jersey Devils on April 4, when the fans at Madison Square Garden started chanting his name again.
He was in position and competing hard to locate the puck to stop the second and third shot attempts. Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh said Lundqvist was communicating with the defensemen to make sure he could see everything. He was moving in his crease with the same level of quickness that he had pre-injury.
"Those are the things that I think separate Henrik from other goalies," McDonagh said. "And it didn't take long to see that quickness, that sharpness and competitiveness come right back."
Lundqvist said he felt it too.
"After one or two games I definitely felt like I was really close to where I needed to be," he said. "I have to have the same focus, same preparations. Playing more helps you get into that zone. That was a big thing for me, to just get more games, get the routines, play under some pressure."
The pressure rises now, but Lundqvist said he is ready to handle it. He might even be better prepared than in recent years because of the seven weeks he missed.
"If you like spinning things positively that's one of the positive spins," Vigneault said. "You could say because we had a long run last year that his two months in theory off should be good for him as far as mentally and physically. That's what I'm hoping and we'll see what happens."