GREENBURGH, N.Y. — John Gilmour and Neal Pionk have played just four games as NHL defensemen since the Rangers summoned them from Hartford last week. But the two new guys with two-way skills have been leaving a mark on the ice.
“They’ve played to their strengths — skating, moving the puck, jumping up in the play,” coach Alain Vigneault said after Friday’s practice. “They’ve come in and they’ve contributed in a very positive way. The challenge for them . . . like any young player, is can you sustain it?”
The Rangers plan to rebuild. Gilmour and Pionk, along with January call-up Tony DeAngelo and Monday call-up Ryan Sproul, have gotten a head start on trying to prove themselves because of injuries and underperformance on defense.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” Gilmour said.
Gilmour signed as a free agent out of Providence in 2016. The 24-year-old Montreal native won the AHL’s fastest skater competition last month. He scored his first NHL goal Tuesday at Minnesota.
“It was something that I had been dreaming about my entire life, picturing it since I was a kid,” Gilmour said. “So the fact that it finally went in was very special to me.”
Pionk also posted his first NHL assist that night.
“I can break pucks out fast, which leads to offense,” Pionk said.
The 22-year-old Minnesota native signed as a free agent out of Minnesota Duluth last year.
“There’s still some things to learn,” Pionk said. “But I think with each game, I gain a little confidence with the puck and feel a little more comfortable out there.”
Brady Skjei, Pionk’s defense partner, has enjoyed the view of the two 6-foot rookies.
“I think they’ve both gotten an opportunity and they’re making the most of it right now,” Skjei said.
Gilmour and Pionk are happy to be going through this transition with each other and the other Hartford alums.
“I don’t know how it would be like if I was alone,” Gilmour said. “I’m sure I would handle it all right. But having these guys to bounce these experiences off of is great. We get to hang out on and off the ice and share this moment together. We’re definitely enjoying every minute of it.”
Notes & quotes: Right wing Pavel Buchnevich will return from his concussion Saturday at Ottawa . . . Center Kevin Hayes (lower body) didn’t practice and has less than a 50-percent chance of playing, according to Vigneault . . . Alexandar Georgiev (flu) won’t make his NHL debut in goal as planned. Henrik Lundqvist will start. Goalie Brandon Halverson was recalled. Forward Vinni Lettieri was demoted . . . Marc Staal (cervical strain) returned to practice and said, “I feel good.” But the defenseman needs more conditioning.