Not counted among the 18,006 spectators at the Rangers' 2-1 loss to the Bruins Tuesday night was Michael Del Zotto.

The 23-year-old defenseman was consigned to civilian dress and an observer's role for a third straight game, an enforced wallflower status because first-year Rangers coach Alain Vigneault preferred the "safe game and a little bit of bite'' he could get with the bigger, more rugged Justin Falk at Del Zotto's position.

For a fellow who once was a first-round draft pick, and never a healthy scratch the previous two seasons under John Tortorella, Del Zotto is experiencing an obvious enough emotion.

"Frustration,'' he said. "It's something you never want. You always work so hard to play and you always want to be playing. And that's what I've done my whole life.''

The not so poetic twist to the evening was that forward Rick Nash simultaneously (and giddily) returned from a five-week concussion absence, expressing all players' difficulty in having to watch "when your team's playing well and the fans are excited and there's a buzz in the town.''

To be benched by a coaching decision, as opposed to an injury, "is worse,'' Del Zotto said. "When you're injured, you have no choice.''

He said "nothing's been said'' by the coaching staff to specify why he's disappeared from the lineup, a development that not only was doing a number on his self-esteem but predictably stirred a quick Montreal Gazette hair-on-fire rumor that the Rangers could be trolling Del Zotto as trade bait.

Rangers assistant Scott Arniel scotched that, saying last weekend that "D.Z. will be patient. We haven't given up on him.''

In the meantime, though, the job on the third defense pair, alongside John Moore, continued to be filled by the 6-5, 215-pound Falk, who led the Rangers with four blocked shots and had four hits in limited ice time Tuesday night.

Falk's Snowflake, Manitoba, hometown certainly lends him a certain hockey cred, but he has been a career fill-in, scoring a single goal in 113 games.

That compares with the smaller (6-foot, 195), more offensive-minded Del Zotto, the youngest Rangers defenseman (at 19) ever to play on an opening night; who scored in his second NHL game; who spent plenty of time as a power-play trigger man, and who had a career-high 41 points in 77 games in 2011-12, the last full NHL season. Del Zotto's uniform No. 4, inspired by Bruins great Bobby Orr, did not seem terribly arrogant early in his short career.


"All I can do,'' Del Zotto said, "is work hard and come to the rink with a smile on my face and be ready whenever I'm asked.''

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