Raphael Diaz arrived on Monday after being summoned from the Hartford Wolf Pack. He was joined at Rangers practice by Ryan McDonagh, who has missed the past five games due to an upper body injury, leaving head coach Alain Vigneault with some tough decisions to make about the make-up of his defense corps heading into Tuesday's Game Three of the team's opening-round playoff series with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"You know at this time of the year I don't discuss lineups," Vigneault told reporters. "We have some decisions to make there (on defense), and we'll find out tomorrow."
The Rangers defeated the Penguins on Saturday to even up this best-of-seven at one game apiece, doing so without two of their veteran stalwarts in the lineup, as both McDonagh and Dan Girardi were sidelined by undisclosed injuries. They played with the six healthy defensemen they had, including a pair of rookies--Brady Skjei and Dylan McIlrath.
Now with the arrival of the 30 year-old Diaz and the possibility that McDonagh's return to game action might occur sooner rather than later--Vigneault said his captain was "doubtful" for Game Three "but stranger things have happened"--the coaching staff has options and perhaps some tough calls to make on who plays and who doesn't.
"Throughout the year you play with different guys and our lineup isn't always the same every night and the same two guys aren't always playing with each other, so as a group we take pride in being easy to play with no matter who you are paired with," explained Keith Yandle on Monday. "I think that will help us here in this situation."
At practice on Monday the same three defense pairs that played together on Saturday were once again utilized by Vigneault as Marc Staal paired with Kevin Klein, Skjei was with Dan Boyle, and Yandle and McIlrath formed the other twosome on the blue line.
"It's tough to come in and play (as a rookie), especially playoff time when it's that more critical, and I thought (Skjei and McIlrath) were awesome, to come into that environment on the road and be expected to do all the things--kill penalties, play on the power play--it's great when you have young guys that can handle that," said Klein.
Skjei played more than 17 minutes in the series opener and 19+ in Game Two, where he also picked up his first NHL point--assisting of Derick Brassard's goal in the second period. In addition to playing the left side on a pair with Boyle, the left-handed shooting Skjei logged some very important minutes on the right side late in the third period when Klein served seven minutes in penalties.
"Being out there, getting that big-game experience, just raises his confidence," Boyle said of Skjei, the Rangers top pick in the 2012 draft. "He's a big body who can skate--two things that are very important this time of the year. You're not going to fully replace a guy like Mac, but (Skjei) certainly fits in really well."
As for McDonagh and Diaz, they formed a fourth defense pairing at practice, and Diaz also skated on the team's second power play unit, sharing the point with Boyle.
"I'm excited to be here, the playoffs--the best time of the year," said Diaz, who was a member of the Rangers 2014 squad that made a run to the Stanley Cup Final and then returned to the organization this past summer. "My whole focus is here on how I can help and I'm really excited to be a part of this team again. It's fun to be with the guys, they're amazing guys here."
Diaz, a right-handed shot who can also play the left side, appeared in only 37 games this season with the Wolf pack due to injuries. He did play in the final two games of the regular season and said Monday that he feels "really good mentally and physically." He did record 21 points in 37 games with the Wolf Pack this season.
The one defenseman who definitely does not figure into the Game Three's mix is Girardi. He recieved treatment again both Sunday and Monday, but has not been on the ice and will not play for the fourth time in the past five games on Tuesday.