Henrik Lundqvist is back with the New York Rangers, sort of.
One day after being cleared to return to practice following a serious neck injury, New York's No. 1 goalie is still a ways away from game action — largely because the Rangers' schedule leaves little room for practice.
"I feel good," Lundqvist said before the Rangers hosted Chicago on Wednesday night. "I am excited to get a chance now to kind of get back into things. It's been six long weeks. I am excited to finally get back with the team, and just ready to play hockey again."
Lundqvist was injured Jan. 31 when he was struck by a shot by Carolina's Brad Malone. He finished the game and played two nights later. Further tests revealed the severity of the injury, which included the risk of a stroke.
Lundqvist has been working out on the ice, but had faced only low shots until coaches sent pucks his way Wednesday morning.
"I want to take the first week here just to skate with the guys and get more speed into my practice. Then we can kind of take it from there," he said. "I am not going to force it. It's not about me, it's about what is best for the team, too.
"I want to make sure when I go out there, I feel ready and I can make a difference and help the team. Before that, it's better for everyone if I just stay in practice and work on my game."
The Rangers' career wins and shutouts leader was 16-4 with a 1.82 goals-against average and one shutout in 20 games before the injury. Overall this season, he is 25-11-3 with a 2.25 goals-against average and five shutouts.
New York has gone 15-3-2 without him before Wednesday.
With four games in seven nights, including a back-to-back set this weekend, the Rangers won't be practicing much. They will have a full team workout Friday and another next Wednesday before playing at Ottawa on March 26.
"We're going to have to play this by ear a little bit and talk to Hank," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said Wednesday. "Getting shots from quality coaches like he did this morning and getting shots from players in a practice is probably not the same thing.
"We'll have a first glance at it on Friday, see how he feels."
Dressed in a sharp suit and expressing relief and happiness to be this close to getting back on the ice, Lundqvist said his injury has healed well and in the expected timeline laid out by doctors in New York and around the United States who served as consultants.
"Hockey is such a big part of my life, so when you miss that for that long you feel off," the 33-year-old Lundqvist said. "I am walking around and been skating really hard, so physically I feel great. Now it's more about getting out there, getting the timing right and get comfortable for game situations in practice.
"Physically, I think the last four weeks I have been feeling good. That's kind of been the frustrating part, that I feel good but I'm just waiting for the doctors to tell me I am OK."
They now have, and he is excited to finish the process and rejoin the team fully.
With the way backup Cam Talbot has played in Lundqvist's absence, and the Rangers' surge to the top of the NHL standings, there is no internal pressure to rush Lundqvist back before it is certain he is ready.
"It's been hard," Lundqvist said of the time off. "It's been a new situation for me. It has definitely helped to watch the team play and Cam play the way they have been playing and winning. It has been very impressive to watch, but it also made me even more excited to get back into things.
"You want to be a part of it. When hockey is such a big part of what you do, when you don't have it, you really miss it. The action and the adrenaline is such a big part of my everyday life, so you feel a little lost when you are gone for that long."
Vigneault said he would feel comfortable using Lundqvist in the playoffs if the No. 1 goalie plays anywhere from two to five games down the stretch in the regular season. No date has been set yet to get him into a game.
"He has been working out on his own, condition-wise he is real good," Vigneault said. "In training camp it only takes him a couple (of games) and he is good to go. He has played 39 games so far this year. Yes, he's been out, but he's been active so I don't expect this to be a long time for him to tell me he is good to go."
Until then, Talbot will continue to shoulder the load.
"Teammates and coaches have a tremendous amount of confidence in him," Vigneault said of Talbot, 13-2-3 before Wednesday since Lundqvist was sidelined. "In the time that we needed him to be the go-to guy, the number one guy, he certainly did the job that was expected.
"He has definitely proven to himself and his teammates that he can perform as the number one guy and get the job done."