By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers were dealt a tough blow when shutdown defenseman Kevin Klein fractured his right thumb during Tuesday’s defeat to rival Devils.
Klein was already playing through the pain barrier, persevering through a similar injury since blocking a shot in the Blueshirts’ victory in Philadelphia on Jan. 16. Now, the Rangers will have to soldier on without the help of one of their steadiest defensemen for an indefinite period.
Teammate Derick Brassard was left hoping for the best immediately after the 3-2 defeat at Prudential Center. The 28-year-old center holds Klein’s game in high regard. Klein leads the Rangers with a plus-14 rating and is second on the team in ice time, averaging 20:01 per night, behind only captain Ryan McDonagh.
“It’s big time, the way he plays the game,” Brassard said of Klein. “He plays a lot of minutes and does a bunch of things out there for us. He’s well-respected in our dressing room. I hope he’s going to be fine. We’re in a really tough stretch. It’s going to be a tight race all the way to the end and we’re gonna need that guy.”
Klein’s value to the Rangers goes beyond his stout defending, his heavy shot and the 10 points he’s collected through 38 games. The 31-year-old serves as an emotional leader in the dressing room. He is a rah-rah guy, as he often rallies teammates before games.
“Kleiner is the heart and soul in the locker room,” backup goalie Antti Raanta said. “He’s always fired-up. He’s always playing the music and trying to get everybody into the mood. I’m always happy to see his routine. It’s funny to watch. He’s fired-up and has so much energy. He tries to build that and give that to the other guys, also.”
Though Raanta didn’t fully lift the lid on Klein’s pregame antics, the physical defenseman has been known to do a ritualistic warrior’s dance, which teammates coined as “the tsunami dance.”
“There’s some good moments,” Raanta said. “We have to keep those in secret. We can’t give it to other teams. Those are our secrets.”
The spotlight will now shine on 23-year-old rookie Dylan McIlrath, who has only dressed in three of the last 14 games. When he’s had his chances, McIlrath has played a safe and efficient game. He did not dress in Newark after scoring a goal in the pre-All-Star break victory over the Buffalo Sabres.
McIlrath will likely be paired with explosive blueliner Keith Yandle. The duo has shown chemistry on the ice together, with McIlrath serving as a stay-at-home defenseman.
While McIlrath’s play has been reliable when head coach Alain Vigneault has called on him, it’s a whole different test for an inexperienced defenseman to be leaned on in the middle of a playoff chase. So far, he’s performed admirably and shown fans there’s more to his game than physicality and intimidation.
“I have the belief that I can play a complete game,” McIlrath told WFAN.com earlier this season. “I don’t worry about what the media or the scouts are saying. I’m just trying to constantly improve. That’s what this whole process has been. The biggest thing at the next level is thinking the game. It’s tough to get away with pure athleticism. One thing I tried to work on down in the minors was letting the play come to me. You can see guys in the NHL that maybe don’t have the best footspeed, they get away with it because they’re so smart defensively.”
His game has expanded and his confidence has grown. Now, it’s time for McIlrath to put everything he’s learned to use by solidifying the Rangers’ D-pairings while Klein is on the mend.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey