Rangers Nearing Full Strength At The Right Time

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, in mid-sentence after Monday’s practice, looked for a piece of wood on which to knock.

He had just been asked about how it feels to have a roster that is getting closer and closer to being whole.

“Every time I say this, something happens,” Vigneault smiled and tapped on the wooden podium in front of him.

“Injuries are part of the game and every team is going to have some, you just need to deal with it. That is where depth comes in and opportunities for guys who want more ice time. We have three (extra) forwards and at some point, hopefully in the near future, we are going to have three (extra defensemen) that will be out that are going to want to get in. It makes for good internal competition and, hopefully, I make the right decisions as far as who I play in every game.”

More important than the extra bodies – the depth that they’ll provide and the decisions they will force Vigneault and his staff to make – is the almost imminent return of the Rangers’ best and most important player, goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

Lundqvist returned to practice Monday, participating in virtually the entire session, after missing four games and two weeks of what was expected to be a two-three week recovery from a hip strain. He still has his sights set on playing during the Rangers’ three games/four nights trip to California starting Saturday in Los Angeles.

“He looked all right,” Vigneault said. “I know he’s been following the medical protocol and he’s been going through the different stages with Benny (goalie coach Benoit Allaire) on the ice. I talked to him briefly before practice and he said he was feeling much better.

“I think the logical thing to say is we’re still on the same protocol we were on before. I would expect him, at some point, when we go on the California trip.”

Lundqvist said he had fun competing in practice with his teammates and that the hip gave him no problems.

“I think it’s important that I feel 100 percent,” he cautioned. “Physically, I feel great. It’s healed well and I have the power that I need. Now it’s about getting the timing right and being on top of your game and just playing well. It’s more about that right now.

“But at the same time, it’s tough. You don’t want to push yourself too hard or be out there too long and risk anything. I think every day here I’m increasing the time on the ice and how hard I go. I want to be out there for a couple hours now, but Benny kind of slows me down and tries to be patient here.”

When the Rangers return from California, they will have five games remaining before the playoffs.

Is that enough time for Lundqvist to be playoff sharp?

“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “I had a similar experience a couple of years ago, where I had seven or eight games left.”

That year, 2015, Lundqvist returned late in the season from a vascular injury as Cam Talbot drove the Rangers to the Presidents’ Trophy. Lundqvist had a stellar first round against Pittsburgh, a series of five straight 2-1 games, four of those won by the Rangers. He was very strong again against Washington in the second round, and had some ups and downs in the Eastern Final against Tampa Bay, though the last two losses were by shutout.

This time, the Rangers aren’t really fighting for much down the stretch. They are solidly in a playoff spot (Magic Number is 8 going into Tuesday’s game in Newark, followed by a Garden date with the Islanders Wednesday). If the Rangers finish fourth in the Metropolitan Division, they would cross over to the Atlantic bracket for the first two rounds, taking on the Atlantic winner first.

Incidentally, assuming the Rangers finish fourth, they cannot have home-ice advantage in any of the first three rounds of the playoffs unless the second wild card somehow survives the Metro bracket. Given the Rangers’ home and road records, that might be a good thing.

The returns of veteran right-handed defensemen Dan Girardi (ankle) and Kevin Klein (back) are also close; both practiced Monday and could play before the trip or during it.

Since Klein left the lineup 13 games ago and Girardi followed 10 games ago, most nights the Rangers have had a single righty among their six defensemen – and neither a regular – in Adam Clendening or Steven Kampfer. If both Girardi and Klein are to play, Vigneault is going to have to make a tough call. Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and Brady Skjei aren’t coming out, and newcomer Brendan Smith’s been pretty solid.

So perhaps Nick Holden would have to be scratched for Girardi and Klein to both play.

On top of that, Staal has meshed well with McDonagh on a first pair. Does Vigneault force Girardi back into that spot in Staal’s place? Smith and Holden have been a pair lately, with some difficult games, and Skjei partnered with Klein before Klein’s injury.

Up front, the hard decisions have already begun, with rookie Pavel Buchnevich getting the hook for Tanner Glass two games ago, and Glass coming out for Buchnevich the next night. Though it might seem a no-brainer given Buchnevich’s upside, coaches like veteran players in the playoffs and Glass is a straight-ahead type of player that the Rangers lack.

Vigneault had Buchnevich, Oscar Lindberg and rookie Jimmy Vesey together as an atypical, but effective, fourth line Saturday in Minnesota. Vesey scored the game-winning goal, Buchnevich assisted, and Lindberg had a goal and an assist.

The coach also had Jesper Fast, more of a fourth-line type, playing up a line and J.T. Miller away from the linemates – Kevin Hayes and Michael Grabner – that formed the team’s best threesome most of the season.

Maybe it’s all experimentation and this is as good a time as any to do so. The Rangers also need to fix their special teams before things get serious around April 12, and maybe figure out how to play better at home.

Time, right now, is on their side. And, if Vigneault’s knocking on wood works out, so might be their good fortune.