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Rangers could use Mats Zuccarello in conference semifinals

Mats Zuccarello of the New York Rangers skates

Mats Zuccarello of the New York Rangers skates to the bench in pain in the first period against the Pittsburgh Penguins during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden on Friday, April 24, 2015. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

Mats Zuccarello never saw it coming. And because of the shot in Friday's game that struck Zuccarello in the head, the Rangers don't know how long they might be playing without the diminutive Norwegian winger.

With 4:30 left in the first period of the series-clinching game Friday, Zuccarello was bent over, battling with Penguins defenseman Taylor Chorney in front of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury when Ryan McDonagh's blast from the left point hit the left side of his head.

Play continued, but Zuccarello, holding his head, skated straight to the bench, and after a few minutes, he went to the dressing room and didn't return. After the game, a Rangers spokesman said Zuccarello was being evaluated.

Coach Alain Vigneault said he heard Zuccarello would be "all right," which is a glimmer of good news for the Blueshirts. There won't be another update until Monday, when the Rangers return to the ice after earning the weekend off.

Without a doubt, the Rangers, who scored just 11 goals in the five games against the Penguins, need Zuccarello's presence in the next round. He has been a fixture on the top line with leading scorer Rick Nash and Derick Brassard, contributing 15 goals and 49 points in 78 games, and adding three assists against the Capitals.

If the 27-year-old winger -- who rarely coasts, rarely drifts -- cannot play, it will create a domino effect through the forward lineup.

The only spare winger is James Sheppard, who is a third- or fourth-liner, so either J.T. Miller or Martin St. Louis would have to move up and Vigneault likely would move Jesper Fast up from the fourth line to make room for Sheppard with Dom Moore and Tanner Glass. That would certainly alter the familiarity among the trios.

Sheppard, who was acquired from San Jose at the trade deadline, has played 24 postseason games and is 2-5-7. Sheppard did play the final three games of the season and scored against the Devils.

"We have guys that need a couple days to recover," Henrik Lundqvist said, apparently referring to Zuccarello and defenseman Kevin Klein, who is recovering from a broken arm suffered when he was hit by Alex Ovechkin's shot March 11.

Whenever Klein returns, Matt Hunwick, who played a solid five games in his absence, will likely sit.

"You can't go anywhere in this league if you don't have depth," Vigneault said after Game 5. "You're going to need guys to step in and play important minutes."

Confident Lundqvist

Privately, Henrik Lundqvist was very confident of moving on when the Rangers went up 3-1 in the series against the Penguins.

Just before the playoffs, Lundqvist was asked whether the forced rest and rehab for eight weeks after suffering a damaged blood vessel in his neck might be a blessing. After all, the Rangers relied heavily on Lundqvist in recent seasons when they didn't clinch a playoff spot and he's said he is fresher and in better condition. "Ask me again during the playoffs," he told Newsday.

Before Game 5, we did. "Right now, it still just feels like the playoffs. Ask me again during the next round," he said with a wink.

Lundqvist had a 1.53 GAA and .939 save percentage in the five games against Pittsburgh. A lot will be on his shoulders in the second round.

Heard and seen

With Game 7 of the Islanders-Capitals series being played Monday, Game 1 of the next round might be pushed to Thursday at Madison Square Garden, with Game 2 on Saturday or Sunday, depending on television network decisions . . . Marc Staal may have been watching Saturday's Game 6 between the Rangers' potential opponents, the Islanders and Capitals, but not the previous five. "I haven't watched a full game," he said Friday. "It's another tight series and two very good hockey teams. Pick your poison there." . . . Game 5 was a perfect example of why opposing teams were asking about Dominic Moore's availability at the trade deadline. The veteran center won 9 of 10 faceoffs and led the team in the series in winning draws (53 percent) and assisted on Carl Hagelin's OT winner . . . Rangers defensemen had 12 points in the five games with the Penguins.


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