By Sean Hartnett
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Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault is understandably in a jovial mood these days.
His team is pretty darn good and, perhaps more importantly, it is getting key reinforcements back in the lineup.
The 55-year-old bench boss even offered to begin Thursday’s post-practice press conference with his impression of the new president-elect, but then thought better of it.
“I was going to give you my Trump imitation, but I’m gonna save that,” Vigneault joked.
Though Vigneault abstained from providing the media with an all-time press conference sound bite, he stood at the podium beaming as if he had won an election. Vigneault confirmed that star winger Rick Nash will return to the lineup on Friday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, following an eight-game absence. He also indicated that rookie winger Pavel Buchnevich will dress on Friday “unless something happens.”
Together, Nash and Buchnevich have provided the Rangers with track-meet speed and deft playmaking. While Nash probably could have returned to game action prior to the team’s league-mandated five-day break, the extra recovery time allowed him to receive treatment on his groin injury and afforded him additional workouts.
“It will be a fun test, it feels ready to go,” Nash said. “You’re always nervous before a game coming back from an injury, but I’m looking forward to get it going. It’s always a hard thing to watch from the press box. You always want to be out there helping your team. Lucky for me, the team is been playing great and it has been fun to watch. I can’t wait to get back out on the ice.”
Barring an unforeseen setback, Buchnevich will return to the Rangers’ lineup against the Leafs following a three-game stint with the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack. The 21-year-old winger last dressed for the Blueshirts on Nov. 12 before back and core issues put the brakes on a productive start to his NHL career.
“He had played real well in the first game. They were very pleased with his first game back,” Vigneault said of the reports he received on Buchnevich from Hartford. “Just okay on his second and they liked his third. They thought he made some plays. He was involved. Conditioning-wise, he seems to be where he’s supposed to be. Hopefully, that three-game experience prepared him to come back and be ready to contribute here. Before he got hurt the second time, he was playing real well for us. That’s the player we’re looking for.”
Buchnevich has recorded eight points, including four goals, through his first 10 NHL games. His 0.80 points per game only trails Chris Kreider (0.83 P/GP) for the team lead. Vigneault said the strength and conditioning work should allow the talented, albeit slightly-built Russian to better withstand injuries.
“That’s what we’re hoping on, and that’s why we took the time to strengthen his core and his back where he had some issues,” Vigneault said. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed. All the hard work that he put in, we’re hoping and we’re confident that it is going to pay off. He’s looked real good, he’s been telling everybody that he feels fine.”
Mika Zibanejad will not return to the lineup on Friday, but he’s edging closer to game action. Vigneault said that the 23-year-old Swede will need to go through “a real practice on Monday, after that he’ll probably be day-to-day.” Zibanejad said he has a target date in mind, though he did not reveal it.
“It’s fun to be back on the ice with the guys and practice again,” Zibanejad said. “I actually feel the last couple of days went really good. I’m just going to take it day-by-day here.”
But it’s not all positive news for the Blueshirts. Vigneault confirmed that alternate captain Marc Staal is undergoing concussion protocol and “is feeling a little bit better.” He said winger Jesper Fast has the flu. Vigneault estimated that Fast has lost close to eight pounds and has been “under the weather for the last two-to-three days.” Fast reported to Thursday’s practice, but was sent home by the team.
At some point, the injury gods will show mercy on the Blueshirts and allow Vigneault to run out his best 18 skaters and two goalies. If the Rangers are given a clean bill of health, Nash thinks this current group has a lot in common with the 2014 roster that reached the Stanley Cup Final.
“It just reminds me of the team that went to the finals three years ago,” Nash said. “With guys like (Carl) Hagelin. I know Brian (Boyle) is a big body, but he brings speed for his size — for a guy to move like that. Not since then, we haven’t seen that speed. Last year, Pittsburgh kind of had it and you saw the success they had.”
Currently holding the first wild card position in the Eastern Conference, the 28-13-1 Rangers survived an injury crisis without going into a tailspin. Speed and skill is what wins in today’s NHL and the Blueshirts should be able to continue spreading those hallmarks across four lines.
That is, as long as they can avoid the injury bug going forward.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey