Rangers' Ryan Strome (16) skates during the third period of...

Rangers' Ryan Strome (16) skates during the third period of Game 5 of the team's NHL hockey Stanley Cup second-round playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, May 26, 2022.  Credit: AP/Karl B DeBlaker

Every job has its risks. Among the many in the NHL are pucks rocketing toward ankles or hands, bodies that come hurtling toward others either in open ice or up against the hard boards or sticks being carried too high.

It’s just accepted that injuries will occur because there’s almost no way to avoid them. This deep into the playoffs, a majority of players are dealing with something, either as a major hindrance or nagging issue. Injuries and how to compensate for them is a non-story to NHL coaches and players. Next man up is not just a cliché, it’s the only way forward for successful playoff teams.

That all said, it’s time to discuss how injuries will impact this Eastern Conference Final with the Rangers and Lightning tied 2-2 heading into Thursday night’s Game 5 at Madison Square Garden.

The Rangers suddenly seem to have injury issues while the Lightning are seemingly on the verge of getting much healthier.

The Blueshirts’ depth at center could be a main storyline in Game 5 with Ryan Strome and Filip Chytil both potentially unavailable. Coach Gerard Gallant on Wednesday said both would be game-time decisions. If both are out, Andrew Copp likely slides into the middle.

More on that in a minute.

But first, an acknowledgement of how much the Lightning will benefit if Brayden Point is able to return in this series. He was their second-leading scorer in each of the last two playoffs as the Lightning won back-to-back Stanley Cups. He had 14 goals and nine assists in 23 games last postseason while compiling 14 goals and 19 assists in 23 playoff games in 2020.

Point has been absent from the Lightning’s lineup because of a lower-body injury since Game 7 of the first round against the Maple Leafs. But he’s been skating with equipment since June 1 and has now rejoined his teammates for optional morning skates.

“Now we’re getting into the point where I don’t know if there will be definitive outs,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said on Wednesday. “I’d be surprised if he plays this next game, honestly. But I’m not going to sit here and say he’s out for the series anymore.”

Now back to the Rangers’ potential problem(s).

Strome exited Game 3 with an apparent knee issue but Gallant expected him to play in Game 4 and Strome even took his regular spot centering Artemi Panarin and Copp during pre-game warmups. But Barclay Goodrow started Game 4 centering the second line instead of Strome while Kevin Rooney drew into the lineup to center the fourth line in Goodrow’s spot.

After the first period, Gallant elevated Panarin to play with Mika Zibanejad, a duo that’s been lethal on the power play but has yet to click consistently during five-on-five play.

It doesn’t seem a coincidence that the Rangers lost Games 3 and 4 at Amalie Arena, including 4-1 on Wednesday night. Chytil did not play in the third period of Game 4 because of an upper-body injury after taking a hard check from Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman in the second period.

If both are out, any continuity on the Rangers’ second and third trios —  the latter being the revelatory Kid Line with Chytil between Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko — are thrown off. Instead of Zibanejad, Strome, Chytil and Goodrow as the four centers, Gallant would probably build lines around Zibanejad, Copp, Goodrow and Rooney.

“We were prepared for it,” Copp said Wednesday of Strome being unavailable for Game 4 and how that impacted him. “There was the possibility that he wasn’t going to be able to go and I knew I was going to go in the middle. I was prepared for it. This time of year, guys are going to go down. That’s part of what I feel like I’m good at is my versatility. As far as how it went? Good and bad.”

The lone Rangers’ goal on Wednesday was Panarin’s power-play strike. While they did outshoot the Lightning, 29-25, skating five-on-five, the Rangers’ generated just six high-danger chances at five-on-five, per NaturalStatTrick.com, compared to the Lightning’s 14.

Injury attrition is always a part of the playoffs.

But, right now, it seems to be impacting the Rangers more.


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