Lundqvist returns with gutty win for Rangers

PITTSBURGH — Before he even made it back to the Rangers’ hotel following a visit to a Pittsburgh eye specialist on Thursday, Henrik Lundqvist made up his mind.

Nothing would keep him from his 112th consecutive Stanley Cup playoff start.

Not the swelling around his eye, not the fact that he panicked for 20 or 30 seconds on Wednesday and wondered whether he was permanently blinded, not even feeling “off” by his own admission because of the swelling.

Lundqvist just needed the magic words from the doctor: “There is no damage to your eye.”

The rest was just background noise.

“When you know there is nothing wrong with the eye, you know you can just go out there and push yourself,” Lundqvist said. “Whatever is feeling uncomfortable when the game starts, you don’t really think about it. It was important for me to put that aside. You just want to be out there and be very determined. There’s no excuse for me for not being ready.”

Lundqvist was ready. And then some.

He changed the conversation in this Eastern Conference first-round matchup, on a day when the Penguins marched into Consol Energy Center ready to put a vise grip on New York. Really, Pittsburgh could not have drawn up the scenario any better for Game 2. They were adding Conn Smythe winner and all-world forward Evgeni Malkin to the lineup a month earlier than expected. And even though third-string netminder Jeff Zatkoff was in net again, the Penguins were rolling offensively and had a one-game cushion to rely on.

That evaporated Saturday.

Lundqvist stopped all 26 shots he faced at even-strength, evening the best-of-seven series for New York with a 4-2 win. Game 3 is Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.

King Henrik now has a .934 save percentage in New York’s 34 playoff games since 2012 which have followed a loss.

“Anybody that’s been around ‘Hank’ knows he’s an elite goaltender and a big-game goaltender,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “There was no doubt that as a group tonight we needed to respond and to play better than we did last game, and I thought we did that.”

Lundqvist kept the Penguins at bay while they were buzzing in the first period. He stopped give-and-goes between Malkin and Kris Letang. He turned aside a blind backhand shot from Sidney Crosby. He blanked Phil Kessel on three straight shots to start the second period.

No save was bigger than the Bryan Rust breakaway. It came seconds after the Rangers finally took their first lead of the series on a Derick Brassard goal, one confirmed by a controversial offside review from a Mike Sullivan challenge. A goal there would’ve knotted the game at two.

Instead, it swung the momentum back toward the Rangers. It may have even swung the series.

“It was a big-time save, for sure,” Rangers defenceman Marc Staal said. “They score there, it changes the complexion of the game. It was good to see him back in net. It’s a good feeling when you know he’s in there competing for you.”

It was a gutty performance by Lundqvist, one you’ll circle when his career is over, even if his decision to not err on the side of caution with such a significant injury may seem utterly insane to a person not embedded in the heart of playoff hockey. 

Chris Pronger had his career ended by a stick to the eye from Toronto’s Mikhail Grabovski in 2011. He, too, battled through and toughed it out for five more games before he was diagnosed with an “ocular concussion.” It affects the vestibular system, which controls vision, balance and movement. The symptoms may not manifest themselves for weeks.

Lundqvist said he never thought twice once he got clearance from the doctor. Kessel’s two power play strikes were his only blemish.

Doctors cleared Lundqvist to play and he went with his gut.

“There was nothing wrong, just a little pressure and some swelling there,” Lundqvist said. “This is not the time where you want to feel if you’re tired or you’re hurt. You want to be out there trying to make a difference. It was a good feeling leaving that doctor’s appointment knowing I was ready to go.”

The enormity of the game was undeniable, Lundqvist said, both for series and the overall construction of the Rangers’ roster as we know it. He delivered.

Lundqvist would not go out on a limb to say the Rangers have now gained the upper-hand in the series, but they do now own home ice.

“It’s a 1-1 series,” Lundqvist said. “It’s first to four. I think we all know whatever you’re feeling after a game, you just have to put it aside. Momentum can change so many times back and forth. It was important for us to answer back here. But it’s a tied series.”

Frank Seravalli

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Dusty Fields

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