GREENBURGH, N.Y. — At 23, Rangers rookie Dylan McIlrath is being thrown squarely into the middle of a heated battle. Just what the rugged defenseman prefers.
“Games matter a lot more now. I mean, every game matters, but it’s getting ready for playoff time,” McIlrath said. “Intensity’s got to ramp up . . . I like that type of hockey.”
With veteran Kevin Klein out indefinitely after fracturing his right thumb while falling awkwardly from a check by the Devils’ Reid Boucher on Tuesday, the 6-5 McIlrath — nicknamed “The Undertaker” in his junior career and “Diesel” in the pros — will have an opportunity to play regularly, starting with Thursday’s home game against the Minnesota Wild.
“I know I can do it,” said McIlrath, who gained confidence after playing 11 consecutive games on the third d-pair from Dec. 2 through Dec. 22, when Klein was sidelined with a strained oblique. “Last time, it was kind of a feeling-out process to see if I could really play in this league. Hopefully, this time I can step right in and feel comfortable.”
The former 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft, McIlrath, who racked up 330 penalty minutes in his last two seasons in Hartford, lost none of his feistiness or willingness to get involved after he made the roster out of camp. He pounded Bruins forward Matt Beleskey for his cheapshot on Derek Stepan on Nov. 27. The next night, he steamrolled the Flyers’ Nick Schultz and decisioned Luke Schenn, who tried to retaliate.
“We know about his toughness, his physicality,” said captain Ryan McDonagh, “but it’s great to see him gaining some confidence with the puck and using his big shot, too.” McIlrath has two goals, with the last against the Sabres on Jan. 25.
Coach Alain Vigneault said the Rangers (5-4-1 in the last 10 games) have no immediate plans to recall another defenseman, so McIlrath’s turn has come around again.
“I’ve played 20 games so far and that’s more than I thought I would at the start,” said McIlrath, who is far less experienced than Klein, 31. The Winnipeg native’s plan is equally modest: “I just want to be a solid, reliable defenseman,” he added after Wednesday’s practice. “I’m not going to go out of my way to do too much. I just want to be counted on.”
Rick Nash, healing from a bone bruise in his left leg, skated 40 minutes before practice, but will miss his fourth straight game. “He’s improving every day, he’s just not there yet,” Vigneault said. “I think he was hoping that it was going to feel a little better, but it did not stop him from doing drills on his own and with a couple teammates.” . . . There also may be another issue at forward because the Rangers recalled center/right wing Jayson Megna from the Wolf Pack Wednesday evening. Megna, 26, played five games with the team this season, debuting with a goal and assist against Dallas on Jan. 5... The Rangers were 3-7-2 with Klein out, but Vigneault kept the tone positive: “This team has proven a multitude of times that it plays its best hockey under pressure. We’re in a real good position — a lot of people say we should be in a better position — and we’ve got 32 games left.”