Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault referred to his team as “reenergized, refocused, and reset” as the players returned to practice Sunday afternoon at the MSG Training Center following a four-day break for the Christmas holiday. He could have added that the Rangers are also the healthiest they’ve been since Thanksgiving.
Defensemen Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein returned from injuries and were able to practice with their teammates, as did backup goaltender Antti Raanta. Vigneault expects all three to be back in uniform Monday night when the Rangers kick off a three-game road trip with a tilt against the Predators in Nashville.
“Unless something drastic happens from now til tomorrow..I would expect both of them (Girardi and Klein) to play,” stated Vigneault, who added that Raanta will definitely serve as Henrik Lundqvist’s back up Monday.
Girardi, who has missed five straight games due to swelling in his knee, said that “it felt OK” during practice and that a final decision will be made on his playing status following the morning skate in Nashville. He did add that he is still feeling some pain in his knee, and revealed that “there’s a little crack in the kneecap” which should not get worse by playing games.
“It’s been pretty tough watching the boys and they’ve been struggling a little bit, kind of fragile, and just trying to find ways to win,” said Girardi, who had missed only four games due to injury previously in his ten-year career. “It’s tough not being out there being able to help them. If we (he and Klein) can both go hopefully we can provide a spark (Monday).”
Girardi took his usual spot alongside Ryan McDonagh on the top defensive pairing at practice Sunday, while Klein paired with Keith Yandle. Marc Staal and Dan Boyle rounded out the other defense combination, while impressive rookie Dylan McIlrath skated as an extra.
“I had time to clear (my) head and think about what’s been going on the first couple of months here, and am hoping it’s like hitting the reset button,” offered Girardi. “We need everybody, myself included, to figure out what’s been going on and bring their A Game every night.”
The Rangers went 2-3-0 in Girardi’s absence after losing the previous two games in which he was severely hampered by the knee injury. Girardi was hurt originally blocking a shot against the Vancouver Canucks on December 9. He then remained in the lineup in a 7-5 loss to the Edmonton Oilers and a 5-4 overtime defeat to the Calgary Flames before sitting out the next five contests.
Klein has been sidelined 11 straight games with an oblique injury suffered November 30 against Carolina. Raanta suffered a head injury when struck by a shot on December 17 in Minnesota and sat out the final three games before the holiday break. The following night in Winnipeg Derek Stepan returned to the lineup after missing ten games with broken ribs suffered in Boston the day after Thanksgiving—the injury which started the team’s recent stretch of bad health.
“It felt good almost right away and we went pretty slowly and tried to be as careful as possible,” explained Raanta of his recovery. “The Christmas break came at a good time for me so I didn’t have to miss any more than the three games.”
Raanta admitted that when struck by a hard shot in the forehead in Minnesota “my legs felt heavy” and that everything moved “a little slow motion” and he “didn’t feel like myself”. However the bad feelings soon disappeared and he fortunately recovered quickly.