Every team has injuries, of course, so losing defenseman Jacob Trouba for 4-6 weeks to a broken thumb isn’t something the Rangers have time to feel sorry for themselves about. As they entered Thursday’s game in Philadelphia against the Flyers – their first road game since Jan. 28 in Buffalo – the Rangers were saying all the right things about needing other people to step up their play to make up for Trouba’s absence.
"It's a big blow, but in this shortened season and these circumstances, every team has it,’’ coach David Quinn said after practice Wednesday. "So, it's just, ‘next man up.’ ’’
Unfortunately for Quinn, though, the "next man up’’ was a guy who hadn’t played in three weeks, and who wasn’t having a stellar season to begin with: 34-year-old veteran Jack Johnson. Johnson last played Jan. 26 in Buffalo against the Sabres, and then missed the next eight games with a groin injury. He only returned to practice for the first time on Wednesday, and Quinn had said Johnson would need a few more practices before he’d be ready to play in a game.
At the time, Quinn had hoped to have rookie K’Andre Miller available Thursday, after the rookie defenseman participated fully in Wednesday’s practice. But Miller, who missed Tuesday’s game with an upper-body injury, was deemed not healthy enough to play, the coach said in his pre-game media briefing.
So, suddenly, the defense for Thursday’s game was left with only three members from the six who played opening night against the Islanders – and that included Johnson, as well as the first pair of second-year players Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren. The three other defensemen in the lineup Thursday were Anthony Bitetto and Libor Hajek, who both started the season on the taxi squad, and Brendan Smith, who was the seventh defenseman and a healthy scratch on opening night.
The injuries to Trouba and Miller were certain to put more of a load on Fox, the Jericho native who turned 23 Wednesday and already was the team leader in ice time at an average of 24:56 per game. Fox, the point man on the first power-play unit, also is part of the first penalty-killing defense pair, along with Lindgren. Now he’s going to have to find a way to do even more than he had been doing.
"Injuries are kind of a part of the game,’’ Fox had said Wednesday, when there was still hope Miller would play against the Flyers. "It hurts, but I think it's just an opportunity for guys to step up and fill that role.
"It falls on everyone to step up when you lose a guy as important to our ‘D’ corps as Troubs.’’
Certainly, the Rangers were going to need everyone to do a little more in the absence of Trouba and Miller against the Flyers. There was no question Fox and Lindgren would have to make up most of the slack, but more, too, would be asked of Bitetto, the 30-year-old Island Park native, and Hajek.
Hajek, who himself turned 23 on Feb. 4, was one of the key pieces the Rangers got in the blockbuster deal at the February 2018 trade deadline, when they sent captain Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Hajek made the team out of training camp at the start of last season, but suffered a knee injury and eventually was sent to the minor leagues. This season, his game has grown since he came off the taxi squad to make his season debut on his birthday. On Tuesday, he played a season-high 20:14.