So too are the New York Rangers with their franchise goaltender back to looking like the foundation for New York’s near annual deep postseason run.
Three days removed from a freakish run-in between his face and teammate Marc Staal’s stick, Lundqvist looked like his ever steady self while making 29 saves and the Rangers took advantage of some sloppy defensive play by Pittsburgh in a 4-2 victory on Saturday that evened their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series at one game.
Lundqvist sat out the final two periods of a Game 1 setback after Staal’s stick made its way through the goaltender’s cage, scraping Lundqvist’s right eye.
He saw a specialist on Thursday, practiced on Friday and spent three periods on Saturday doing what he always seems to do this time of year.
Lundqvist kept the surging Penguins — boosted by the return of star center Evgeni Malkin — at bay for most of the first 30 minutes then saw his team pounce when Pittsburgh went through the kind of lull it largely avoided while ending the regular season with a 14-2 burst.
Keith Yandle and Derick Brassard scored 18 seconds apart in the second period to give the Rangers the lead and Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider piled on later as New York improved to 6-2 since the start of the 2014 playoffs in the game immediately following a loss.
J.T. Miller added three assists as the Rangers handed Pittsburgh just its third loss since March 6.
Game 3 is Tuesday in New York.
Phil Kessel scored his first two playoff goals in three years. Backup goaltender Jeff Zatkoff made 24 stops while making a second consecutive start in place of injured Marc-Andre Fleury, but was undone by some shaky play in front of him.
“When our team is at its best, we’ve been defending really well,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think a couple of the goals were uncharacteristic of this group.”
One that had one of its biggest pieces in place with Malkin’s familiar No. 71 in the lineup. The star was supposed to be out 6 to 8 weeks after injuring his left arm against Columbus on March 11.
He made it back a good week earlier than even the most optimistic projections, returning another dynamic piece to the league’s hottest team.
Malkin finished with an assist in 18:57 of ice time but looked reticent to shoot while toggling between lines, including an occasional pairing with Sidney Crosby.
“Everything is fine, but I need a little bit more confidence,” Malkin said. “It’s pretty hard, but I’m fine. I’m still positive.”
Pittsburgh led at the midway point on Kessel’s power-play goal 3:21 into the second before the next 10 minutes changed the direction of the series.
Yandle tied it 12:38 into the second when Brassard won a faceoff in the left circle and Miller swooped in to get it before passing it to Yandle in the right circle. Brassard wasted little time giving the Rangers their first lead of the series when Pittsburgh defenseman Olli Maatta couldn’t handle a bouncing puck, and Brassard raced by him to beat Zatkoff for Brassard’s seventh goal in his past 10 playoff games against the Penguins.
Officials reviewed the goal to see if Brassard’s feet crossed the blue line before the puck, but replays were inconclusive, and the Rangers were ahead to stay.
“I guess I was fine,” Brassard said.
A few minutes later, New York was better than that. Zuccarello’s doubled the Rangers’ advantage on a play that looked like a mirror image of Yandle’s score, sneaking toward the far post behind Pittsburgh’s defense and slamming a pass from Miller into the net 16:52 into the second.
When Trevor Daley’s turnover along the goal line early in the third period offered Kreider an easy opportunity that he didn’t miss, the Rangers were on their way to the kind of bounce-back performance that’s become typical of their postseason resilience under coach Alain Vigneault.
Having Lundqvist at the back end to cover up mistakes certainly helps.
“Good feeling to go home now and then we get an opportunity to play at home,” Lundqvist said. “I can’t wait.”
The Rangers went 0 for 3 on the power play. The Penguins were 2 for 5. … New York scratched D Dan Girardi; the first postseason game Girardi has missed in his 10-year career. Asked on Friday if Girardi had an upper body or a lower body injury, coach Alain Vigneault replied “the whole thing.” … The Rangers outhit the Penguins 57-25. … The matchup was the 500th playoff game for the Rangers, who are 238-254-8 in the postseason.