GREENBURGH, N.Y. – Mika Zibanejad will miss his 10th consecutive game Wednesday night, when the Rangers host the Washington Capitals at Madison Square Garden. The good news for he and the Rangers, however, is that the Blueshirts’ No. 1 center did practice with the team Tuesday, though he wore a red (no contact) jersey. There remains no target date for him to come back, according to coach David Quinn, but after three-and-a-half weeks of being “day-to-day’’ with an upper body injury, the 26-year-old Swede appears to finally be nearing an actual return.
In the nine games Zibanejad has missed since he was injured in a game against the Bruins on Oct. 27, the Rangers have gone 5-3-1, and the lineup has been pretty stable. Quinn, who has shuffled his line combinations like a blackjack dealer in his two seasons behind the Rangers bench, made no changes in the top three lines, except for elevating fourth-liner Greg McKegg to the third line when rookie Kaapo Kakko missed the last two games because of the flu.
Other than that, the top three lines – Artemi Panarin-Ryan Strome-Jesper Fast; Chris Kreider-Filip Chytil-Pavel Buchnevich and Brendan Lemieux-Brett Howden-Kakko – have given Quinn no reason to break them up. All three lines showed nice chemistry over the last nine games, and that begs the question of what changes Quinn will make when Zibanejad does return.
One thing the coach said he’s unlikely to do is move Strome to the wing, so he could stay on a line with Panarin, and have Zibanejad skating between them.
“Yeah, I'll be shocked if we move Strome (from center),’’ Quinn said. “I haven't really thought that far along in the process, of where to put Mika, since he's probably not going to play this week. We have discussed it a little bit, but there are other issues that we want to address, and focus on, right now. And when Mika comes back, we'll address that then.
“Strome's obviously had a great start, so I’m not going to take him out of the middle unless something drastic happens,’’ he said.
If Strome stays at center, and stays with Panarin, it’s possible Zibanejad could slot into the second line, between longtime linemates Kreider and Buchnevich. That would bump the 20-year-old Chytil – who has six goals in nine games – down to the third line, centering a Kid Line between the 18-year-old Kakko and 23-year-old Lemieux. Howden would then end up on the fourth line.
It’s also possible Quinn could split up Strome and Panarin, putting Zibanejad back into the No. 1 center spot, leaving Chytil where he is, and dropping Strome down to the third line, with Kakko and Lemieux. Strome played with Kakko early in the season and that didn’t seem to work particularly well. But both Kakko and Strome are playing better now than they were then.
Blue shorts: Quinn said Henrik Lundqvist will start in goal Wednesday against the Capitals. “He's played well against Washington,’’ Quinn said of Lundqvist. “Just the way we kind of anticipate what's moving forward, I want to get him into a little bit of a rhythm.’’… Kakko expects to play Wednesday after missing the last two games… Chytil was given a “maintenance’’ day Tuesday, and did not practice… Micheal Haley, who cleared waivers Monday, remained on the roster and practiced in Chytil’s spot.