PITTSBURGH — After losing to the Penguins in the opening game of their first-round playoff series, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault is shuffling the deck for a critical Game 2 this afternoon and hopes to be playing his ace: Henrik Lundqvist.
Lundqvist, who left Game 1 Wednesday night soon after Marc Staal’s stick accidentally poked through his mask late in the first period, said his right eye wasn’t damaged and that he “felt pretty good” in yesterday’s practice.
“The big thing for me was going to the specialist and knowing there was no damage,” Lundqvist said after facing dozens of shots in practice. “It’s more the swelling around the eye that affects it a little. We’re taking it day by day, but practice was good. I’m very pleased with the way it felt.”
Whether Lundqvist starts Game 2 of the best-of-seven series depends on “how he reacts to the strain of the practice,” Vigneault said. “He’ll be a game-time decision . . . There’s a definite bonus in the fact that Hank has won so many big games. If he can play, it will have a positive impact, there’s no doubt in my mind.”
Lundqvist, who collapsed holding his head with 48.6 seconds to play in the first period after the stick jab, yesterday spoke about the frightening moments for the first time.
“It was very blurry and hard to focus,” Lundqvist said. “For 20 or 30 seconds, I had a lot of really bad thoughts going through my head. It was very scary, actually. It was extremely painful, and you go numb a little bit. Before you open your eyes, you don’t know what the reaction will be. It was such a hard hit that I was shocked. It was not a great feeling. Then you open the eyes and slowly, things started to feel a little more normal. That night, it improved a lot; the way the stick hit me, I feel lucky. I’m just happy it’s nothing serious.”
Vigneault scratched Dan Girardi with an unspecified injury and is tabbing rookie defenseman Dylan McIlrath for his NHL playoff debut with Keith Yandle. Girardi, who played poorly in Game 1, didn’t practice and was unavailable for comment.
The coach, trying to guide the Rangers deep into the playoffs for the third straight season, also tweaked his top two lines and called out some forwards. “We need more from Derek] Stepan’s line, we need more from Brassard’s line,” he said. “We need our top-end players to play better. It’s time to make a difference.”
Brassard and Mats Zuccarello were separated, with Rick Nash moving to Brassard’s right with J.T. Miller and Zuccarello joining Stepan and Chris Kreider.
For Game 2 and beyond, though, the key factor is Lundqvist, who said it was his decision to initially stay in Wednesday night’s 5-2 loss. Antti Ranta played the final two periods.
“You have a minute to go and I didn’t want to put Antti in a tough spot,’’ he said. “It improved a lot when I was getting treatment by the bench, so I felt I could finish the period. But in the locker room, it was harder and harder to get that crisp focus — you need to focus quickly on moving objects — so I tried to for a few minutes before the second, and it was just not good enough to play.”
Lundqvist’s teammates were encouraged by his presence at practice. “Any time you can have your All-Star leader on the ice preparing himself is going to lift spirits,” Stepan said. “He’s a battler. I’ve been here for six years and that’s one thing I’ve learned about him is he competes. He’s a big part of our playoff picture.”