GREENBURGH, N.Y. — With two players returning from injury and a top prospect getting some extra ice time, the Rangers are prepping for another stretch of three games in four days in a lighter mood.
Center Derek Stepan, out since Nov. 27 with two broken ribs, is healing faster than originally anticipated, and defenseman Kevin Klein, sidelined with a strained oblique since Nov. 30, made the flight to Minneapolis on Wednesday.
Although coach Alain Vigneault said they wouldn’t dress against the Wild Thursday night, it was possible that both could play Friday in Winnipeg. And the injury to Dan Girardi’s right knee, which will prevent him from traveling, is not considered serious.
Without Girardi, rookie defenseman Brady Skjei, who made his NHL debut on Tuesday in the 4-2 win against the Oilers that ended a three-game losing streak, will make his second start, and at a rink where he had season tickets. Skjei, 21, was born in Lakeville, Minnesota, and attended the University of Minnesota.
“There’s no doubt that in a winning environment, everybody’s more upbeat, the bumps and bruises aren’t as intense as they are after a loss,” Vigneault said after practice. “This game is about winning, you have fun when you win; there’s no doubt that the environment is a lot more positive.”
As an example, Vigneault said, “’Step’ is a little ahead of Klein, and ‘Kleiner’ is getting a lot of heat for the American being ahead of the Canadian.”
Klein, who has missed seven games, said the issue will be “the battle drills, making sure I can hold those guys down low and battle in front, the parts of my game that I really need. He [the coach] just wants to know that I’m comfortable . . . playing 20 minutes of a physical game. I’m hopeful for [Friday].”
Stepan, who has missed nine games, said he was close.
“I feel good,” said Stepan, who will wear extra protection on his shoulder pads and chest. “I’m pushing it a little more each day. The first week and a half, I couldn’t do anything. Conditioning and stamina will be a big part of being able to come back.”
Judging from the past few days, Stepan said he thought that despite the Rangers’ 3-6-2 slump, “the group is tougher from it, we definitely learned from it . . . When I was in the lineup, I wouldn’t say we were playing at a high level. I get hurt and they seemed to fight it a little. Every team’s going to do that throughout a season. You need to rebound and get yourself back on track as soon as possible. They did a lot of good things, but when you’re in it, it’s so difficult to get out of it.”
Notes & quotes: Girardi, who has played 790 regular-season and playoff games for the Blueshirts, will miss only the seventh and eighth games of his career . . . Henrik Lundqvist is expected to start in St. Paul. Devan Dubnyk will be in net for the Wild . . . Chris Kreider had a “maintenance” day, but Vigneault said he would play Thursday night.