The Rangers' Colin Blackwell skates as players warm up for...

The Rangers' Colin Blackwell skates as players warm up for an NHL game against the Devils on Feb. 16 at Madison Square Garden. Credit: AP/Elsa

Who could have predicted when the Rangers signed Colin Blackwell, a 5-9, 190-pound forward who had 33 NHL games on his resume after four seasons of professional hockey, that with all the big-name, high draft pick prospects on the Rangers’ roster, Blackwell would be a top six forward for the Blueshirts as they head to the stretch run of the season?

His college coach, Ted Donato, is not surprised. Well, maybe a little.

"I'm both surprised and not surprised,’’ said Donato, the 1992 U.S. Olympian who has been the coach at Harvard for 17 years. "I'm surprised, because you begin to wonder whether he's going to get the opportunity. I'm not surprised, because he's a talented kid.’’

Donato, who played 13 seasons in the NHL – including one with the Rangers, in 2002-03 – said Blackwell has "got the toolset’’ to be a successful NHL player. And the coach believes, if not for concussion problems that cost him more than an entire season in college, Blackwell might not be a surprise to the general public.

Originally a seventh-round draft pick by the San Jose Sharks in 2011, Blackwell had five goals and 14 assists in 34 games as an 18-year-old freshman for Harvard, and he was invited to try out for the U.S. World Junior team his sophomore year. But he wasn’t healthy.

He missed the entire season in what would have been his junior year, and played only 11 games when he came back the following year. He played one more year at Harvard -- he had six goals and 13 assists in 28 games in 2015-16 -- and signed a free agent contract with the San Jose Barracuda of the AHL after that. Two years later he signed an NHL contract with the Nashville Predators, splitting the 2019-20 season between them and their AHL affiliate in Milwaukee, and last October he signed a two-year, one-way, $1.45 million contract with the Rangers as a free agent.

On Tuesday, in the Rangers’ 8-4 win over the Penguins, Blackwell skated on a line with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome and scored his 10th goal. He played on the power play and the penalty kill. It’s something he did for Donato at Harvard.

"When Colin was healthy, he was a real difference maker for us,’’ Donato said. "He's got great speed; he's got really good offensive instincts. He's fearless; he blocked shots, so he was a really high end penalty killer. He was a guy we could play in all situations, he could play center ice, he could play wing – just an all-around, great athlete.

"What's most impressive to me is his perseverance through some tough times, as far as his health status,’’ Donato said. "And then his ability to kind of stay with it and continue to have confidence and believe in himself.’’

Blue notes

The Rangers did not practice Wednesday. The team offered COVID-19 vaccinations to its players and staff. "With the COVID-19 vaccine now extended to anyone over 16, we’re excited that many of our players and staff opted to get vaccinated,’’ the team said in statement. "We applaud New York’s efforts to expand eligibility, and encourage our fans to get vaccinated.’’ ... The team will have a full morning skate before Thursday’s game against Pittsburgh.

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