FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Blake Wheeler's first game for the New York Rangers in nearly three and a half months didn't end in storybook fashion.

His last memories of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final at Amerant Bank Arena on Tuesday are instead of the nightmare variety.

First, he thinks of the pass from teammate Mika Zibanejad going into his skates at the offensive blue line and the puck being taken away. Not his fault, but it happened.

Then he goes to chasing Florida Panthers forward Aleksander Barkov down the ice and hooking him to prevent a scoring chance. That's a penalty, so next he's in the box, where he had to sit for 13 seconds before watching Sam Reinhart's power-play goal at 1:12 of overtime hand the Rangers a 3-2 loss that evened the best-of-7 series 2-2.

Even for a 37-year-old with 1,238 combined regular-season and Stanley Cup Playoff games played, that is a lot to digest, especially when you have nothing to fall back on because you haven't played since Feb. 15.

"I mean, I wish I wasn't racing back down the ice especially with the guy that I'm chasing," Wheeler said at the Rangers' team hotel Wednesday morning. "I've replayed it a million times between last night and this morning and I own that play. I talked to [goalie Igor Shesterkin] about it after and asked him if he would prefer me to just let him take that look. If there's anyone I trust to make that save it's him. But if I had to do it all over again, I'd do the same thing.

“You know, hindsight is 20-20. You never know, right? He might make a big save or not. Let him go and he score [versus] putting them on the power play and maybe we stop them. Tough situation, but like I said I own my actions and I think I would have done it all over the same way."

Wheeler's last play on his 15th and final shift of Game 4 might be his lasting takeaway from his first game back since suffering a gruesome lower-body injury in a home game against the Montreal Canadiens on Feb. 15.

But the bigger picture for him and the Rangers is focused on the fact that he was even in the lineup to play 9:18 of ice time in Game 4.

Wheeler worked hard for the chance he got Tuesday, going through his rehab while still trying to be present around the team. He resumed skating on his own on April 19, eventually joined the team for practices wearing a red noncontact jersey that he exchanged for a regular jersey on May 13.

Since then, it was about proving himself ready in practice so he could be an option to play in a game. He hoped that would be the case. He didn't allow himself to think it, though.

"It didn't get that far in the vision," said Wheeler, who is in his first season with the Rangers. "My goal was to get healthy, just be available, be an option. I didn't get to the point of 'OK, now how do I get in the lineup?' When it came to that point I had to kind of rethink things a little bit. The team has played so well and I never wanted it to be about me. I wanted to be available and if something comes up, I could help. I just wanted to be available for the team. But, yeah, there was definitely a minute of ‘wow, you get this far, now what?’ I'm very proud to have made it all the way back and got back in there."

He replaced Filip Chytil, with the Rangers scratching Chytil as a way to manage him since he too has only recently returned from a prolonged injury absence.

Wheeler played on the fourth line with Barclay Goodrow and Matt Rempe. He had four hits, including two on his first shift of the game. He blocked two shots and had his only shot attempt blocked by Panthers defenseman Niko Mikkola at 18:34 of the first period. He won a face-off.

"Through communication with Blake over the last five to seven days everything that we saw off the ice and on the ice led us to believe he was a player," Rangers coach Peter Laviolette said. "I thought his game was good. He was trying to work hard. He was physical."

Laviolette wouldn't say if Wheeler will play in Game 5 at Madison Square Garden on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN+, ESPN, SN, TVAS, CBC). He also wouldn't address Chytil's status. The coach hasn't discussed the Rangers lineup publicly since the playoffs began.

So it's impossible to know now if playing Game 4 is a one off for Wheeler or if he will continue with a role in the lineup in the series and potentially beyond.

That decision will come into focus Thursday, when the Rangers have a morning skate in advance of Game 5.

Whatever happens, Wheeler seems like he would be content with it because for the first time since he was stretchered off the ice in February he knows for certain that he's a player again for the Rangers.

"It was amazing to get back out there and be with the guys again," Wheeler said. "I certainly wish the outcome was different, but everything was great to be out there with the guys."