It was "after one of the big wins" - the Rangers have had a couple in recent days, so it was unclear which - when David Quinn sent a text to Mika Zibanejad in which he "had a little fun" with one of his top players.
"I said, 'Despite our record, we still want you back,'" Quinn said on Tuesday. "'So Let's accelerate this process here.'"
Many a truth is said in jest, and on Wednesday night the Head Coach will get his wish, and the Rangers will get back their No. 1 center and an indispensable part of a lineup that has had to go without him for more than half its games this season. Zibanejad took full part in practice on Tuesday afternoon in Westchester, and afterward was declared ready to return to the Rangers' lineup when the Blueshirts face the Carolina Hurricanes at Madison Square Garden.
In the end, Zibanejad will have missed exactly one month since being knocked out of the Oct. 27 game against the Bruins with an upper-body injury from a reverse hit by Patrice Bergeron. The injury, like the hit itself, proved unpredictable, day-to-day but lingering, costing him 13 games in all, which Zibanejad admitted on Monday had been a source of frustration at times over the last month.
"It's been feeling pretty good last week or so, it's been moving forward. I feel ready," Zibanejad said on Tuesday. "You just don't want to be injured; to start off with, you don't want to miss games. But I'm happy the way they've been playing - they're playing with more confidence. And so it's going to be fun to join them."
Zibanejad will rejoin a team shooting for its third straight win, its fourth straight on home ice, following its second come-from-behind thriller in a three-day span on Monday night against the Minnesota Wild. Zibanejad was the Rangers' leading scorer when he went out, with 11 points in eight-plus games, but since has watched numerous teammates step up to grab a share of the heavy load their top center customarily shoulders.
"That's the thing, that's something that we're proud of: We're 8-4-1 without him during that stretch," Quinn said. "If you had ever told me before the season started that we're going to lose Mika Zibanejad and be without him for 13 games and go 8-4-1, I'd be surprised. No. 1, because of the position he plays, and because of our youth down the middle; and 2, what he means to our organization.
"That's the thing that happened: (Fil) Chytil really took an opportunity and ran with it, (Brett) Howden elevated his game, (Ryan) Strome elevated his game. We have found some chemistry between (Artemi) Panarin and Strome. So there are things that did happen that you would hope to happen when you lose a player of Mika's caliber."
"It's been looking pretty good, and you're itching to get back in when that happens," Zibanejad said. "It's been frustrating to have to watch, and at the same time it's been fun to watch this team play. So I'm just hoping I can come in and help, I can do what I do, and hopefully keep on winning."
How the lineup dominos will fall once Zibanejad returns to reclaim his minutes - measured by average, Zibanejad still leads all Ranger forwards at 20:52 per game - remains to be seen, though Quinn said on Tuesday that he has no plans at the moment to split Strome and Panarin, nor to move Chytil out of the middle, where he has claimed his spot since being called up from Hartford along with Ryan Lindgren on Oct. 28, the morning after Zibanejad's injury.
And while the Coach also said that he has no plans to ease Zibanejad back in, at the very least he will help soften the landing by placing him in familiar surroundings: Zibanejad will skate on Wednesday between Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich, linemates he knows very well.
"Kreids and Buchie, my first line I played with when I came to the Rangers, and it's our fourth season together now," Zibanejad said. "I know those guys pretty much in and out, so it's fun to be reunited with them."
"Pretty good player," Kreider said in understated fashion when asked what the Rangers were getting back. "Obviously a huge part of our team -- on the ice, in the room, on the bench -- so it's awesome. I think there was a pretty good energy around the group obviously because of the last two wins, but also getting him back today, he's such an integral part of the group and such a good friend and teammate, so it's just a lot of fun having him."
Kreider and Buchnevich combined for eight goals and 21 points in the month that Zibanejad has missed, during which time Zibanejad had been skating regularly on his own. He reenters the lineup during a busy stretch of schedule with little time for practice - he skated with his teammates on Thursday, then joined them again at the next opportunity, which wasn't until Monday's morning skate. Tuesday's practice was a welcome final step.
"Just more for things like the 5-on-5 drill, just kind of getting a little reminder of the feel out there, and just a game-type situation," he said. "I've been skating quite a bit on my own -- at least conditioning-wise, I feel good in that. But it's hard to simulate the game, and the game speed and everything, so I'm sure it'll take a few games to kind of get back into it with the rhythm and the timing and stuff. I'm hoping it doesn't take too long."
Better late than never. Because despite their record without him, the Rangers are thrilled to be with him again.