With Ryan Lindgren in COVID-19 protocol the previous three games and Patrik Nemeth sidelined for an non-COVID issue, the Rangers defense was slightly depleted for the first time all season.
While they managed to go 2-1 without Lindgren, the other half of their top defensive pair with reigning Norris Trophy-winner Adam Fox, the Blueshirts were grateful to get Lindgren back just in time for Monday’s game against the Oilers at Madison Square Garden. Center Kevin Rooney also cleared COVID protocol on Monday and was back in the lineup.
However, the Rangers were able to get a brief look at what their depth in the back end looks like in the absence of Lindgren and Nemeth. Zac Jones made his season debut against Tampa Bay on Sunday, while the same game counted as Libor Hajek’s seventh in a row after he was a healthy scratch for the first 26 contests of the season.
Jones skated with rookie Nils Lundkvist to forge a third D pair that combined for just 35 games of NHL experience. Logging 13:32 and 14:21, respectively, the 21-year-olds held their own against a high-scoring Lightning squad.
Despite getting turned inside out by Brayden Point on the rush in the first period, Jones was rather steady. The UMass product and Lundkvist were on the ice for four scoring chances, two of which were high-danger, according to Natural Stat Trick.
“They moved the puck [well],” head coach Gerard Gallant said Sunday. “You try and get the matchups that you want against them, [but] it’s not easy sometimes when they’re making line changes on the fly. But they were out there against the top line sometimes and did real well. They didn’t show a lack of confidence, and that’s important.”
Up until Lundkvist missed four games just before the holiday break due to a non-COVID illness and Hajek stepped in, the Rangers’ defensive pairings had been the same for eight games. With Jarred Tinordi also in COVID-19 protocol, the Rangers recalled Jones from the taxi squad, which was reestablished following the holiday recess.
Most of the Rangers’ personnel challenges have come at the forward position this season, and more arose on Sunday when Artemi Panarin landed in protocol. As a result, Alexis Lafreniere was bumped to Panarin’s spot on the left wing of the second line next to Ryan Strome and Barclay Goodrow. Tim Gettinger also made his season debut, flanking the fourth line.
“When you’ve got some of your top players out of the lineup and some of the kids get a chance to step in — especially on the blue line, Laffy goes up to that second line and plays good hockey — it’s a good thing for them,” Gallant said. “It’s a good thing for our management to see our kids step up and it makes a coach feel a lot better when you see those guys go into a bigger role and succeed.”
The Rangers’ are fortunate their first pileup of players in COVID-19 protocol didn’t hit until the official return of taxi squads. This has allowed the six reserve players to practice with the team and get ahead of familiarizing themselves with the Rangers system.
“I’ve seen a lot of those guys at camp and that’s the first time I met a lot of those kids,” Gallant said in Florida, the taxi squad’s first road trip of the season. “It’s nice to have them around and all that. It’s not a perfect scenario, as we all know, but I think it’s good for those guys to be around our team.
“When they get the opportunity to play games, if that happens, it’ll make it that much easier for them to adjust to our systems and everything. It’s good to see those kids, they’re happy, they’re excited to be here.”