It hardly could have gone any worse for Henrik Lundqvist.
On the eve of his 38th birthday, Lundqvist got his first start for the Rangers in almost a month and suffered the indignity of 5-3 loss to the Flyers on Sunday afternoon at the Garden.
The Rangers (35-26-4) had lost the first game of this home-and-home with the Flyers (38-20-7) of Kevin Hayes and Alain Vigneault, a 5-2 defeat in Philadelphia on Friday night during which Chris Kreider broke his foot, possibly keeping him out for the remainder of the regular season. That defeat had ended the Blueshirts’ franchise-best nine-game road winning streak, and also broke a five-game overall winning streak.
With presumptive No. 1 goalie Igor Shesterkin sidelined since his Brooklyn car accident a week ago, Alex Georgiev had gotten three starts in a row. But Lundqvist got this one, his first start since Feb. 3 and just his fourth start since Shesterkin had been called up on Jan. 6.
“There might be a little rust, but there’s really nothing we can do about that. We want him in there,” coach David Quinn said before the game. “Georgie has played a lot in short period of time, Hank has looked good in practice. He’s had a hell of a career. So. . .”
So, the Rangers started the third period down, 5-1, with five goals allowed on 20 shots. But Lundqvist led them out for the final 20 minutes anyway, and the Blueshirts did show a modicum of pride.
Pavel Buchnevich scored a power-play goal at 5:21 to cut the deficit to 5-2. And then Mika Zibanejad added his second of the game with a ridiculous move in close, lifting a backhand in off the crossbar to make it 5-3 with 7:21 remaining in regulation.
But it was too little, too late, and that is where it ended.
When Lundqvist had been announced in the starting lineup, he got a big cheers out of the afternoon crowd, a little subdued on Kids’ Day. Lundqvist even got a cheer when he stopped the first shot he faced.
“He hasn’t played a lot, but he has worked his tail off in practices, he’s ready to go mentally,” Quinn had said. “I’m excited about getting him in there.”
Yet by the second shot of the game, it was a different story. That was deflected off the stick of defenseman Jacob Trouba, went through Lundqvist’s legs, and was eventually finished by Matt Niskanen for a power-play goal just 1:52 in.
It only got worse, as the Rangers continued their parade to the penalty box. Ryan Strome began his very difficult game by taking a hook, and Sean Couturier finished a rebound in front at 11:19 to make it 2-0. And then with Hayes in the box, the Flyers managed a shorthanded goal finished off by Michael Raffl at 17:53, taking a 3-0 lead into the second.
The start of the middle frame was just as bad, with an odd-man rush for Philadelphia ending when Lundqvist went lunging out of his crease for Derek Grant, who pulled the puck to his backhand and easily finished at 1:23 another to make it 4-0.
It seemed like the Rangers might have some life when Zibanejad got a nice redirection of an Artemi Panarin pass to go for a power-play goal at 12:34 of the second, cutting the deficit to 4-1. But Travis Konecny got the Flyers third power-play goal of the game at 15:34, an easy tip from in front that beat Lundqvist high, making it 5-1 going into the third.