GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Infused with the holiday spirit, Kevin Hayes strolled into the locker room in full uniform after practice on Wednesday crooning “It’s the most won-der-ful time of the year.”
Actually, for the Rangers or any NHL team, the most wonderful time of the year could be in June, hoisting a Stanley Cup.
But on the eve of a two-game trip to Dallas and Nashville, there’s little argument that the Blueshirts are in a good place.
They have 20 wins in 31 games. No. 1 goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is rested and motivated. And they are getting healthier: Power forward Rick Nash, who has missed four games with a tweaked groin, and Matt Puempel, who was concussed against the Islanders, practiced and joined the team on the flight south. Captain Ryan McDonagh, who sat out the 2-1 loss to Chicago with the flu, was improving, and rookie defenseman Brady Skjei was having some dental work triggered by a skate cut on the right side of his chin.
“He’s fortunate,” said Jimmy Vesey, Skjei’s roommate. “But he looks like he has mumps.”
Nash, who has 11 goals and seven assists, said that he would skate on Thursday morning in Dallas and determine whether he would face the Stars, but felt pretty good after his first practice since the injury. He did warn that a groin injury had to be monitored in order not to re-occur, but he seemed anxious to return.
“I was playing pretty well before that,” he said.
Puempel said that all was going according to plan, regarding the post-concussion protocol.
Nicklas Jensen, who played four games in Nash’s absence, was returned to AHL Hartford, a sure sign that Nash and/or Puempel were available.
Coach Alain Vigneault and most members of the team’s front office were attending funeral services for longtime player and coach Bill Dineen — whose son Jerry is the Rangers’ video coach — in upstate New York, so there was no official word on Lundqvist returning to the crease in Texas. Lundqvist, who had been replaced by Antti Raanta in the past four games, when the team went 3-1-0, handled a lot of odd-man rushes during practice, however, and was the first goaltender off the ice. In five career road appearances against Dallas, Lundqvist has posted a 4-1-0 record, along with a 2.17 goals-against-average and a .940 save percentage.