SUNRISE, Fla. — Considering it’s been 11 days since the Rangers last saw game action, head coach Gerard Gallant viewed Wednesday’s matchup with the Panthers as the start of a new season.
The last 30 games are gone and forgotten, as Gallant put it. However, the Rangers were not only able to compile one of the best records in the NHL over that span, but Gallant pointed out that he is now much more in touch with his players than he was before.
“We had a good record, we played well for the most part,” he said of the 19-7-4 start. “But, for me, I get to know my players a lot better. Now, I guess, it’s not a new team for me anymore, right? It’s the Rangers, it’s the team I’ve coached for 30 games and you get to know your personnel a lot better. So I feel a lot better about it.”
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It’s fitting that the Rangers view their return to the ice after a lengthy hiatus as a restart, considering they’ll have to play the first few games without three lineup staples. With top-pair defenseman Ryan Lindgren, top penalty-killer Kevin Rooney and backup netminder Alexandar Georgiev all in COVID-19 protocol, the Rangers could be facing one of their more difficult lineup hurdles.
The Rangers have been incredibly fortunate compared to many other NHL teams, in terms of losing players to COVID-19 protocol or injury. Especially on defense, Patrik Nemeth is the only Rangers’ defensemen who has gone into protocol, while Nils Lundkvist missed some time due to a non-COVID illness.
Aside from losing Igor Shesterkin to a suspected groin injury for eight games, the Rangers’ will likely notice Ryan Lindgren’s absence on the back end even more.
“Obviously, on that first pair, he’s done a tremendous job for us this year,” fellow defenseman K’Andre Miller said before Wednesday’s game. “He’s been reliable in all situations. So we’re taking a hit on defense, but there’s some really good guys that are stepping up into those positions to fill.”
Without Lindgren, his usual defensive partner, Adam Fox, has been paired with Libor Hajek in the practices leading up to the trip. That’s likely made the Miller-Jacob Trouba pairing the Rangers top duo in the rest of the league’s eyes, meaning they’ll see a bulk of the matchups against top lines.
Miller said he tries not to think about that fact. Instead, he wants to focus on what he can control and play consistently for a full 60 minutes.
“It gives Libor a chance to go out there and do his job and show what he’s made of,” Gallant said. “He’s wanted that job all year long, he’s got the opportunity to go out there and play with Foxy and hopefully he plays really well. He’s a good kid, he worked hard all year and it’s an opportunity.
“We’re going to match up as best as we can. But again, you’re playing in the NHL, you’re already against the best players in the league. Be ready to play against them.”
Hajek will likely see time on the penalty kill as well, Gallant said. Without Lindgren and Rooney, who both average within the Rangers’ top three skaters in shorthanded ice time, Nemeth and Greg McKegg will also kill more penalties.