Henrik Lundqvist returns to practice

NEW YORK -- Henrik Lundqvist joined his New York Rangers teammates on the ice Tuesday morning for the first time since early February and said that he hopes to play in a game this weekend.

"That's my goal," Lundqvist said after skating and facing shots for about an hour.

The Rangers play the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night. Goaltender Cam Talbot, who has been outstanding in Lundqvist's absence, will definitely start that game. Talbot is also expected to start Thursday in Ottawa, with coach Alain Vigneault calling it "a stretch" that Lundqvist could play so soon.

The Rangers play Saturday in Boston, but it's perhaps more likely that Lundqvist would return for the Sunday afternoon home game against the Washington Capitals.

"I feel like I'm pretty close to being ready," Lundqvist said. "I feel like my speed is there, my legs are there. The biggest part is the mental aspect."

Lundqvist has been skating for several weeks, as he recovered from a serious vascular injury in his neck that happened when he was hit by a shot from Carolina's Brad Malone. He was cleared last week to take high shots and practice with the team, but because of the Rangers' busy schedule and the birth of Lundqvist's second child, his first actual practice was Tuesday.

"It's been a long wait to get back out there," he said.

Lundqvist was on the ice early to work with goaltending coach Benoit Allaire and stayed on the ice late after his teammates had returned to the locker room. In between, he faced a normal array of shots, although at first, his teammates seemed a little cautious about shooting high.

"Then he made some good saves, and after that the guys were going harder, a little higher," Derick Brassard said.

"I'm fine," Lundqvist said. "They can go high and hard."

The Rangers have gone 17-3-3 since Lundqvist last played on Feb. 2. They have the best record in the NHL and are on the verge of clinching a playoff spot. The Rangers enter play Tuesday with a magic number of four, although because of the technicalities with the NHL standings, that would drop to one with a regulation or overtime win over the Kings.

While the Rangers are still fighting for their position in the standings and home ice in the playoffs, a big focus will be getting Lundqvist ready and at full strength to begin the playoffs. Including Tuesday night's game against the Kings, the Rangers have 11 regular-season games remaining.

So even if Lundqvist doesn't play until Sunday, he would still have as many as eight games to prepare for the playoffs. He'll also have practice time, although with the Rangers' heavy schedule, they have only one full team practice this week (on Wednesday).

The Rangers don't believe it will take Lundqvist long. In fact, Lundqvist's teammates said he already looked fine on Tuesday morning.

"He looked 'same old,'" Rick Nash said. "It looked like he didn't miss a beat."

And even though Talbot has played so well, the Rangers will be happy to have Lundqvist back.

"I've said all along, he's our best player," Nash said. "He's our leader."

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