GREENBURGH, N.Y. - The Rangers have not been hammered like the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are missing nine players with injuries. Nor have they been felled, like many of the St. Louis Blues, by a nasty bacterial infection.
Nonetheless, the Blueshirts have stumbled to a 5-4 record while missing two key players -- center Derek Stepan and defenseman Dan Boyle -- who have been sidelined for all but two periods since Oct. 9.
But on the eve of Saturday night's game against the Winnipeg Jets, there was good news: The Rangers are getting healthier.
Stepan, who fractured his left leg Sept. 24 in a conditioning drill during training camp, practiced with the team for the first time since the injury. After watching his No. 1 center pass and shoot in a non-contact jersey, coach Alain Vigneault said "he looked fine to me" and cautiously did not rule him out of Monday's game against St. Louis.
"It can be anywhere from Monday to next Monday," Vigneault said, based on how Stepan feels and doctors' recommendations.
Stepan, 24, has been sitting in on meetings and is itching to play. He is eligible to be activated from long-term injured reserve Monday but will need at least one full-contact practice before playing. The Rangers presumably will practice Sunday before facing the Blues on Monday.
For Stepan, who had not missed a regular-season game in four years, practicing was a Halloween treat. "It's nice to feel like a player again," he said. "I don't want to make a habit of [sitting out]. Today is a huge step to be back on the ice and skating and sweating and getting some work in afterward. The whole model has kind of been 'crawl before you walk.' We're right on track. My goal is to try to make it back as quick as possible."
Without Stepan, the team's second-leading scorer last season, Vigneault has experimented down the middle in almost every game, with mixed results. The power play is 2-for-23, 27th in the NHL.
Boyle, who was expected to quarterback the power play after being brought in as a free agent from San Jose, also is mending. He broke his right hand while blocking a shot in St. Louis on opening night and was expected to miss four to six weeks. Boyle has been skating on his own for four days and "doing everything but passing and shooting," Vigneault said. "He should be, in theory, quicker [to return] than Step because Step wasn't able to skate."
Against the Jets (4-5-1), a third regular will be missing, but not because of injury. Defenseman John Moore will begin his five-game suspension for Monday's blow to the head that KO'd Minnesota's Erik Haula. Michael Kostka, who has appeared in one game, will replace Moore.
"I respect the league's decision," Moore said Friday. "Certainly I never try to intentionally injure someone. I tried to go through the body there; it's a really tough hit to make, it's a fast play. I need to be physical, but there's also that line and I crossed it. I respect my opponents . . . I've just got to be smarter. There's no one to blame here but myself. Those are hits I can't make. That can't happen again."