GREENBURGH, N.Y. — The knee brace was discarded on the floor next to his stall, a Tom Brady replica jersey hung from a hook at his locker, and Kevin Hayes was grinning.
So whose comeback is bigger?
“Mine,” said Hayes, a native of Dorchester, Massachusetts, who has missed five games with a knee injury and is expected to return when the Anaheim Ducks visit Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.
Hayes, 24, who practiced hard Monday and declared himself ready, will slip back into his role as third-line center and penalty-killer unless something goes awry at the morning skate.
The 6-5 Hayes gives the Rangers more strength down the middle and will send J.T. Miller back to the wing. Before he was injured on a hit by Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall on Jan. 22 in Detroit, Hayes said his game was “trending upward,” which is definitely a fair assessment.
“It [expletive] . . . just watching from the stands,” said Hayes, who played 79 games last season. “You can take it as a positive. It’s a nice little break. Hopefully I’m in game shape.”
The Boston College grad had 12 points (two goals, 10 assists) in his last 11 games to lift him to 13 goals and 35 points in 47 games. That’s four goals and six assists shy of his numbers in 2014-15, his first season with the Rangers, before he took a dip last season.
Hayes came to camp trimmer and with a renewed mindset. “The conditioning, the attitude, the focus and all the things outside the game you have to do to become a better player,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “I’ve always felt that Kevin had the potential to be a strong two-way player, tough to play against because of his size and his reach, and when he had the puck, he could protect it and make some plays. I think that’s what we’re slowly seeing, developing a player with a well-rounded game. This year we’ve been using him to kill penalties and take faceoffs on the left side.”
Notes & quotes: Defenseman Mark Staal (flu) missed practice and Adam Clendening filled in. It was unclear if Staal will play Tuesday night . . . With 14 healthy forwards, Brandon Pirri and Matt Puempel are expected to be healthy scratches, but that might not last long. “I’m OK with it for the moment and with the trading deadline nearby,’’ Vigneault said. “We have cap room. We’ll see what happens.”