By Sean Hartnett
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When the Rangers have been at their best this season, it has been due to lightning two-way speed.
No forward better exemplifies this trait than alternate captain Rick Nash. The 32-year-old winger provides an all-out 200-foot commitment that forces teammates to raise their game.
“I think when you’re a leader and you’re expected to be one of the top players, you try to do that every night,” Nash said earlier this season. “Some nights it’s there, some nights it’s not. Some nights you try to help defensively. But I know that’s part of my game, that I have to help these guys and lift them when things aren’t going right.”
Nagging groin issues have kept Nash out of the lineup for five consecutive games and nine of the last 12. After skating in a full-contact jersey at Monday’s practice, Nash is closing in on returning to the lineup before the team’s league-mandated bye week, which begins on Sunday.
Starting with Tuesday’s home meeting with the Buffalo Sabres, the Rangers will play three games before their break and it’s likely Nash will see game action. Head coach Alain Vigneault stated that No. 61 will be back out there soon.
“As soon as he tells me he’s good to go and cleared medically, he’s playing,” Vigneault said following Monday’s practice. “As soon as he’s ready, I’m playing him.”
Thanks to strong goaltending and a surging power play, the third-place Rangers have won three straight games to keep pace in the highly competitive Metropolitan Division. During their winning streak, the Rangers have capitalized on 43.8 percent of their man-advantage opportunities (7-for-16). Through 39 games, the Blueshirts boast the league’s fourth-best power play at 23.1 percent.
While the Rangers rank third overall with a robust 3.41 goals for per game, a healthier version of the Blueshirts dominated opponents by rolling four lines blessed with speed and skill. Quick to retrieve pucks, constantly pressuring opponents into turnovers and thriving in transition, the Rangers were tough to beat when Nash, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich aided the cause.
The key date for Rangers fans to circle is Jan. 13, the day they will play the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs. By then, with the bye week behind them, the Rangers should have a clearer understanding of when Zibanejad and Buchnevich will return to game action. Zibanejad is currently practicing in a red no-contact jersey, while Buchnevich spent the road trip skating with assistant general manager Chris Drury. Buchnevich is undergoing a conditioning program to recover from lower-back and core issues.
“(He) skated throughout our time while we were gone — got on the ice an hour before us,” Vigneault said of Buchnevich. “I think he’s closing in on that red jersey becoming a normal colored jersey. I think he’s moving along a little slower than we originally expected there, but he’s coming along. He skated real hard while we were gone and he looked real good today.”
If the Rangers can get Nash, Zibanejad and Buchnevich in tow near mid-January, the band will be back together and perhaps they will resume playing with the kind of tempo that can rocket them toward the Eastern Conference elite.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey