GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Pavel Buchnevich, the talented Russian rookie winger, was wearing a green practice jersey Thursday, but that wasn’t necessarily a good omen for St. Patrick’s Day.
With the return of Jesper Fast from a shoulder injury, the Rangers have 15 healthy forwards and Buchnevich was on a fifth line with extras Matt Puempel and Brandon Pirri, also wearing green. Only 12 will dress against the Florida Panthers on Friday at Madison Square Garden.
Coach Alain Vigneault said he was not “100 percent sure” about his lineup and wanted to watch Thursday night’s Panthers-Blue Jackets game and his team’s morning skate before deciding. Fast is one of Vigneault’s most trusted two-way players, so the choice for a forward who will have a night off is among Buchnevich, Tanner Glass and Jimmy Vesey.
But reading the tea leaves offers some hints. In practice, J.T. Miller skated in Buchnevich’s slot on the second line with Mika Zibanejad and Rick Nash. Against the Panthers, Vig neault is expected to deploy a rearranged second power-play unit that features Miller, Kevin Hayes, Nash, Vesey and Brady Skjei. “I liked some of the opportunities they got with J.T. on the [right] half-wall shooting the puck,” he said.
Asked about Buchnevich’s last six games, Vigneault may have tipped his hand. “He’s been a little bit inconsistent,” he said. “There’s some plays I need him to make, especially in our end, that would make his linemates spend less time in our zone. Consistency is one thing I think he needs to work on. He’s a young player, he’ll figure it out.”
If Buchnevich, who has two goals (one an empty-netter) and an assist in the last six games while averaging about 13 minutes a night doesn’t dress, the other three lines would be: Chris Kreider-Derek Stepan-Mats Zuccarello, Michael Grabner-Hayes-Fast and Glass-Oscar Lindberg-Vesey. The defense pairs remained the same: Marc Staal-Ryan McDonagh; Brendan Smith-Nick Holden; Skjei-Steven Kampfer.
Notes & quotes: Henrik Lundqvist (hip strain) could be ready for the team’s three-game West Coast trip, which starts next Thursday. “He’s feeling a lot better,” Vigneault said, noting that Lundqvist had skated for the last two days and would continue Saturday, Sunday and Monday with goaltending coach Benoit Allaire . . . After practice, Dan Girardi said his ankle wound has healed in the last two weeks with the help of a wearable vacuum device (“constant suction, 24/7,” he said), but Vigneault ruled him out for the weekend. “I don’t want to rush back, it would be nice to have a couple team practices,” Girardi said. “When I’m ready, it’s going to be ‘just go play.’ I’m not going to come back if I can’t play 20 minutes.”