Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Rangers Coach Alain Vigneault cobbled together a new pairing of defensemen at practice Friday: Rick Nash and Pavel Buchnevich, two towering forwards who are battling injuries. Vigneault playfully said later that they were his best defensive pair.
The whimsical assignment was one way for the Rangers to cope with reality. Neither is healthy enough to play for the Rangers on Saturday in Columbus, where they are to take on Coach John Tortorella’s Blue Jackets, who rampaged to the top of the N.H.L. standings by winning 16 straight games before losing to the Washington Capitals on Thursday.
Vigneault acknowledged that he did think a little about what Saturday’s game would have been like had Columbus beaten Washington. The Blue Jackets would have been in a position to eclipse the record streak of 17, set by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1993.
But Columbus fell, 5-0, so Saturday’s game will be just another rigorous Metropolitan Division challenge. Entering Friday, four of the top five teams in the N.H.L. were from the Metropolitan: Columbus (27-6-4), Pittsburgh (25-8-5), the Rangers (27-13-1) and Washington (24-9-5).
And there appears to be a break in the clouds for the Rangers, whose players have individually missed more than 100 games to injury this season, many by their biggest stars, including Nash.
The Rangers have half of their 82 regular-season games remaining, but after Saturday, they get a mandated five days off — what teams are generally calling a bye week — before they play the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday.
“This bye week is coming at a perfect time for me,” Nash said.
Rather than return for one game and then take a long break, Nash will continue rehabbing two groin injuries that have kept him out of 11 of the last 14 games.
He missed four games after he was first hurt Dec. 8, played three games but injured the other side of his groin — “overcompensating,” he said. He still remains tied for third on the team with 13 goals, including four in his last seven games.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” Nash said. “I was feeling it out there, too. I just felt like my game was kind of in a good position. It’s a setback.”
Buchnevich, a 21-year-old Russian forward who had four goals in 10 games before being sidelined in November with a back injury, was cleared to participate fully in practice Friday afternoon, then was sent to the Hartford farm club for a home game that night. Vigneault said Buchnevich would be evaluated daily while in Hartford.
Center Mika Zibanejad, who came to the Rangers from Ottawa in an off-season trade for Derick Brassard, has missed the last 22 games with a broken fibula after registering 15 points in 19 games. Vigneault said Zibanejad had resumed skating and could return by the middle of January.
“Injuries are part of the game,” Vigneault said. “I’m focused on the guys who are here now and healthy and try to find ways to win.”
But he added: “That’s what we’ve been trying to do here for quite some time.”
The injuries have tested the Rangers’ depth, but they remain one of the highest-scoring teams in the league. Still, the three injured forwards could form a line more potent, at least, than Brandon Pirri, Nicklas Jensen and Marek Hrivik, the make-do fourth line in a 5-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday.
The Rangers have had poor games, like a 4-1 loss Tuesday at home to the Buffalo Sabres, but as they have many times this season, they rebounded a night later. The Rangers’ longest losing streak is two games.
“We’ve got to continue to have that right mind-set, competing and having good execution with and without the puck,” the team’s captain, Ryan McDonagh, said.
Saturday’s game will be another rematch between Tortorella and Vigneault, who were essentially traded for each other in 2013 when Vigneault went from Vancouver to New York and Tortorella went the other way.
Vigneault enters Saturday’s game with 171 victories as the Rangers’ coach; Tortorella’s teams won 172. When that was pointed out to him Friday, Vigneault smiled and said: “I don’t really pay a lot of attention to that. I try to focus on the team rather than my personal stats.”
His team is healthier, finally, and it has not stumbled often. The Blue Jackets will offer a tough test.
“I’m very impressed what they’ve done over the last five weeks here,” goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said of Columbus. “Torts has everybody on that page, buying into that system. It will save you a lot of nights when your game is a little off.
“But it’s the same thing with us. When you have guys on the same page, trusting the system, it’s going to help move it along.”