By Sean Hartnett
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In the midst of a challenging stretch, the Rangers are set to receive a welcome boost in the form of a healthy Mika Zibanejad.
The 24-year-old center has missed the past nine games due to a concussion sustained last month during an overtime win over the Detroit Red Wings.
Zibanejad’s last appearance came in a shootout victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Nov. 26. Concussion symptoms did not emerge until two days later when the Rangers were preparing for that day’s game against the Florida Panthers. Zibanejad took warmups, but had to sit out.
Zibanejad participated in his first full practice on Monday, lining up on the first line between Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich. Should he return to the lineup Tuesday against the visiting Anaheim Ducks, he would also reassume his customary place on the right point of the first power play unit.
All Zibanejad is waiting for is a thumb’s up from doctors. It’s very likely that will come on Tuesday.
“Unless something happens between now and until tomorrow, he should be available,” head coach Alain Vigneault said following Monday’s practice.
Though the Rangers’ man-up units went a combined 3-for-8 in consecutive wins over the Los Angeles Kings and Boston Bruins, the potential impact of Zibanejad’s return is huge. His prowess from the top of the left circle provides a constant danger for opponents, and he excels at finding open space and firing off hard, accurate one-timers.
The Swedish pivot began the season in electric form, recording 22 points in 24 games. Despite the time off, Zibanejad is tied for the team-lead with 11 power play points and five power play goals. No Ranger has averaged more time on the man-advantage than Zibanejad’s 3:24 per game.
“You can see from day one that he’s a skilled player,” backup goaltender Ondrej Pavelec said of Zibanejad. “He had a great start in the season and he was scoring big goals for us. He’s a great player. When I was in the Western Conference the last few years, I didn’t have the chance to see him that much. Now, I can see that he’s a really powerful player.”
Zibanejad’s 11 goals only trail Michael Grabner (16) for the team lead. No Ranger has a higher point-per-game average than Zibanejad’s 0.92. His 25.5 shifts per game lead all Rangers forwards.
Though the Blueshirts have gone 5-3-1 during Zibanejad’s absence, it has been difficult for them to replace his goal-getting, playmaking, two-way smarts, and special teams value.
Without Zibanejad, the Rangers have been clearly weakened down the middle. David Desharnais was thrust into a top-six role, centering the top line between Kreider and Buchnevich. Zibanejad’s return would bump Desharnais to the fourth line and Boo Nieves would become a healthy scratch.
Should he return to lineup against Anaheim, it will come at an opportune time. The Ducks roll Ryan Getzlaf and Adam Henrique as their top two centers. It’s unclear if Ryan Kesler (hip) will play during Anaheim’s road swing. He did not dress for Monday’s 5-3 loss at New Jersey.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey