Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers look to turn back Sidney Crosby (l.) and the heavily favored Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Henrik Lundqvist was back at practice Tuesday feeling “pretty close to 100%” and ready to respect the Penguins’ talents, but not prepared to bend a knee to a heavily-favored opponent.
“They’re fast, they’re good, but we know we can beat them,” Lundqvist said with a confident nod, practicing fully after leaving Monday’s session early with an unknown illness. “It’s just going to be a very tough and challenging series.”
Alain Vigneault cracked a wry smile, too, as he noted his Blueshirts are not getting much credit entering Game 1 of this first-round series Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.
“I don’t think a lot of people are picking us right now, which is fine and dandy,” the Rangers coach said in Greenburgh. “We’ll just go out, and we’ll play.”
Vigneault really can’t blame all of the pro-Pens prognosticators, especially after he wouldn’t even commit Tuesday to top defenseman and captain Ryan McDonagh (right hand injury) playing at any point in the series.
“I would say at this point there’s a chance that he might be able to play – at some point,” Vigneault said cautiously of McDonagh, who is definitely ruled out for Game 1.
But the Rangers must press on with rookie Brady Skjei expected to play in McDonagh’s stead. So they were focused on two keys before boarding their charter flight to Western Pa.: Their confidence in Lundqvist as the difference, and their focus on neutralizing the Penguins’ top defenseman, Kris Letang.
Lundqvist said he’ll probably take the full morning skate at CONSOL Energy Center on Wednesday to make up for Monday’s lost time on ice, but he had the familiar excitement and intensity in his eyes that come with his playing at this time of year.
“Every time you don’t feel 100% (like I did Monday), obviously you don’t know exactly when you’re gonna feel great again, but today was a good step, a good practice for me,” Lundqvist said. “So I’m confident with another skate I will be ready.”
Rookie defenseman Brady Skjei will play a prominent role for the Rangers, who will be without captain Ryan McDonagh for at least Game 1 of the Pittsburgh series.
That is excellent news because Lundqvist is not only the Rangers’ best player; he often plays his best in the Steel City: In his last eight playoff games against Pittsburgh, Lundqvist has a 7-1-0 record, 1.34 goals against average (GAA) and .954 save percentage. That includes a 4-0 record, 0.99 GAA and .965 save percentage in his last four road games inside the Penguins’ hostile arena (111 save on 115 shots).
“You can see how hard he works to prepare himself, and we’re expecting for him to make a difference,” Rangers leading goal scorer Derick Brassard (27 regular-season goals) said of his confidence in Lundqvist. “For whatever reason, he loves to play in that building. (It’s) probably because there are so many star players on the ice, he feels like he has to be at the top of game all the time.”
Letang, who turns 29 on April 24, is one of Pittsburgh’s biggest stars. He is, in Brassard’s words, “the key to that team.” Even when he is not 100% healthy, the Penguins are a different team. The righthanded Montreal native is one of the most awe-inspiring combinations of silky-smooth movement, strong skating and nasty competitive bites in the entire NHL.
Brassard, a fellow Quebec product out of Hull, played alongside Letang to help Team Canada earn a silver medal at the 2005 IIHF U-18 World Championship. He listed all of the Penguins players from Sidney Crosby to Phil Kessel to Carl Hagelin, discussing the Pens’ speed.
“But the key for us is Letang,” Brassard said, citing the defenseman’s huge contributions at both ends of the ice often in 30-plus minutes of ice time a night. “We have to try to finish him as much as we can.”
At a certain point, though, the Rangers didn’t want to hear about how difficult it will be to beat the Penguins.
“We know they’re good. We don’t need to think more than that,” Lundqvist said. “I think it’s important we focus on ourselves and what we need to do. It doesn’t matter what other people think.”
RANGERS ADD STROMWALL
The Rangers have signed RW Malte Stromwall, 21, of AIK (Sweden) to a two-year deal at a $ 742,500 annual cap hit, terms first reported by the NHL cap site @generalfanager on Twitter and confirmed by the Daily News. Stromwall is the teammate of Rangers 2015 third-round pick Robin Kovacs, 19. He is expected to join the team for training camp in the fall.