Libor Hajek gets Rangers chance, Ryan Lindgren hits COVID list

The Rangers’ defense will have a slightly different look when they take the ice for the first time in 12 days for their game Wednesday in Sunrise, Fla., against the Panthers (unless and until further notice).

Ryan Lindgren has joined Jarred Tinordi, Alex Georgiev and latest addition Kevin Rooney on the COVID list, so Adam Fox will have a new partner for the first time in this season’s 31 games. His name is Libor Hajek.

“Play great defense, give him the puck and let him do the offense,” the sage 23-year-old Czech said of working with Fox, the reigning Norris Trophy winner. “And be there for him.”

Hajek did not dress for any of the Blueshirts’ first 26 games. He was a healthy scratch 21 times and in Hartford on a conditioning assignment for the other five matches. He finally got a look-see on Dec. 10 at Buffalo while Tinordi was with the Wolf Pack for conditioning and Nils Lundkvist was stricken with a non-COVID related illness.

Libor Hajek (l.) will be starting for the Rangers when they return after Ryan Lindgren went on the COVID list on Tuesday.
Getty Images

This contest will mark the fifth straight for Hajek, who has averaged 12:42 of ice time per game while partnered primarily with Patrik Nemeth on the third pair. Nemeth will reunite with Lundkvist for this one.

“He’s played steady, you know? No mistakes,” head coach Gerard Gallant said of Hajek. “He’s played a solid game, he moves the puck well and skates well, so he’s everything we thought we had in the guy. He didn’t get a chance to play early on, it was tough but we were winning games and happy with the lineup.

“But now that he’s gotten in, he’s not flashy, but he’s played really good, solid hockey. Now he’s probably going to get an opportunity to play more minutes and hopefully he’s going to keep getting better because he’s played well for us.”

Gallant had taken to splitting matchup assignments between the Lindgren-Fox pair and the K’Andre Miller-Jacob Trouba tandem. Hajek and Fox, who formed a duo for Fox’s NHL debut in the 2019-20 opener and then for five games late last season, will face their share of top-six forwards on the Florida roster, which has four players on the COVID list, including marquee winger Jonathan Huberdeau.

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“I’m ready for it,” Hajek said about the increased minutes and responsibility that will come his way. “I feel good. I feel more confidence, I trust myself more, I’m better with the puck. I have to keep growing like that.

“The first 25 games at the start of the season was kind of hard, but that’s how it is, that’s the sport. The biggest part [of my game] is defense, 100 percent defense, and then to add some stuff to the offense. I remind myself of that and being good on first passes.”

Lindgren was a staple on the penalty kill, his 2:33 of shorthanded time per game leading team defensemen. While Nemeth pairs with Trouba on the penalty kill, either Hajek or Miller will have to pick up Lindgren’s minutes alongside Fox. Hajek did not get on at all on the penalty kill in his previous four games, but Miller has skated a sum of 24:03 while shorthanded and has been on for one power-play goal against.

Once upon a time, when the Rangers inserted Anton Stralman into the lineup nearly a month after signing him as a free agent early in the 2011-12 season, then head coach John Tortorella said inelegantly of the defenseman: “I didn’t know who the hell he was when we got him and when I first saw him, I didn’t like him.”

Gallant did not quite mirror that sentiment, but the coach, who has the Rangers off to a 19-7-4 start that represents the club’s best 30-game getaway since 1993-94, admitted he did not have much of a book on Hajek before the defenseman belatedly got into the season.

“I didn’t know the player at camp and I was sort of watching and trying to get to know the players I knew were going to be on our team,” Gallant said. “So to be honest with you, I didn’t know a whole lot of what to expect.

“But from what I’m seeing now, I’m pretty happy with it for sure.”

And that means something to Hajek.

“It feels good,” he said. “It makes me want to push harder, do everything better, and stay humble.”