NEW YORK – Henrik Lundqvist practiced with his Rangers teammates Tuesday for the first time since he was forced from the lineup by a neck injury in February, and could be back in goal by this weekend.
Lundqvist took the Madison Square Garden ice several hours before the NHL-leading Rangers hosted the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings in a rematch of last year's finals. He faced all kinds of shots from teammates, who were pleased to have their No. 1 goalie back after he got hit in the neck with a puck on Jan. 31.
"I feel like I am pretty close," the 33-year-old Lundqvist said after being on the ice for about an hour. "I just wanted to work really hard and get extremely tired, so that was accomplished. It was just fun.
"I have been waiting so long to come out practice, and I want to play. I miss the game so much. Just being out there is just a great feeling."
Cam Talbot was to start Tuesday night, and New York coach Alain Vigneault says it would be "a stretch" for Lundqvist to be in the lineup Thursday at Ottawa.
Lundqvist's aim is to play this weekend when the Rangers have back-to-back games — at Boston on Saturday and at home against Washington on Sunday.
"That is my goal," he said. "I need at least one more or two more skates just to work on my timing. I feel close. If you asked me, I wanted to play last week right away when they cleared me. But you have to be realistic about it, too.
"We'll talk in the next couple of days to see what day is the best day to come back."
Lundqvist was hit in the neck by a shot by Carolina's Brad Malone. He finished the game and played again on Feb. 2. Further tests revealed the severity of the injury, which included the risk of a stroke, and he's been out of action since then.
He was medically cleared to practice last week, but with such a game-heavy schedule, the opportunities to get on the ice have been few and far between. Lundqvist has been skating and working out on his own and with other coaches.
Lundqvist was expected to join a full practice Friday, but he missed it because of the birth of his second child. He participated in Tuesday's pregame skate, will practice on Wednesday with the team before the Rangers head to Ottawa and have other workouts in the next few days.
"We don't really have a definite time frame there, but at least he's back with his teammates and practicing on the ice," Vigneault said. "That's a very positive sign."
Lundqvist said jokingly that he thinks a few of his teammates were afraid to shoot pucks high on him on Tuesday, but top forward Rick Nash said he thought Lundqvist looked the same.
"We were shooting it like it was any other game-day skate," Nash said. "He is cleared for practice, so I don't think he would want us to take it easy on him. He looked like he didn't miss a beat when I was shooting on him.
"He's our leader, he's our best player. It's tough to miss a guy like that, so it was exciting to have him back."
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 17-3-3 without Lundqvist in the lineup. Talbot has played all but two games in that stretch. Rookie goalie Mackenzie Skapski won those two at Buffalo.
Having so much time off has actually helped Lundqvist feel fresher than at this point in other seasons.
"I am not going to feel perfect before the first game," Lundqvist said. "You have to go out there and play and work yourself back to 100 percent. What I can do is work really hard on conditioning. I feel like I am really close to where I need to be.
"This week we have just one or two practices, so I'll do what I can to work on just being in the right position in different situations. I feel like the past four weeks have been really good. The fact I have been able to skate and stay in shape. That's going to help me speed up this process."