The Rangers will have a huge void to fill if Mats Zuccarello – injured during Game 5 against the Penguins – isn’t cleared in time for the conference semifinals.
Depth was one of the Rangers’ biggest strengths during their run to their run to the Presidents’ Trophy, and it was on display again throughout their 4-1 first-round series victory against the Penguins.
Look no further than the series-clinching goal in overtime of Game 5 Friday night at Madison Square Garden. Speedy third-line left wing Carl Hagelin scored 10:52 into overtime, his second goal of the series, with fourth-line center Dominic Moore notching one of the two assists on the play, his first point of the series.
Tanner Glass and Jesper Fast, Moore’s linemates, and Matt Hunwick were the only Rangers who did not record a point during the series. But the entire line made an impact on the series with their strong forecheck, particularly during the first period of Game 3 in Pittsburgh when the Rangers dominated the opening 20 minutes and took a 1-0 lead intermission off of Hagelin’s first goal of the playoffs.
Hagelin also earned the primary assists on rookie center Kevin Hayes’ overtime winner in Game 4, a goal produced by terrific teamwork by the third line as well as Hunwick – filling in for the injured Kevin Klein, who did not play in the series while still recovering from a broken left arm – who found Martin St. Louis behind the net.
Seven players scored the Rangers’ 11 first-round goals.
“You can’t go anywhere in this league if you don’t have depth,” head coach Alain Vigneault said Friday. “You are going to get some players banged up now and then. You are going to need some guys to step in and play, and play important minutes and find ways to contribute. That’s just the way the NHL is. These playoffs are a battle of survival.”
One of the Rangers’ best players got banged up during their Game 5 victory, and their depth could be tested early in their second-round series against the winner of Monday’s Game 7 between the Islanders and Capitals in Washington.
Top-line right wing Mats Zuccarello left the game with 3:58 in the first period after taking a Ryan McDonagh slap shot to the left side of his helmet. He did not return to the game. The Rangers haven’t disclosed what his injury is and have provided no update since Friday’s statement that the 27-year-old Norwegian is being “evaluated.” Vigneault did say after the game he heard from someone that Zuccarello was “all right,” but any potentially serious head injury could be treated with caution.
A clearer indication on Zuccarello’s status should come Monday when the Rangers return to practice, which optional for players. If Zuccarello can’t play, James Sheppard likely would dress for the first time this postseason. The Rangers acquired the depth forward from San Jose at the trade deadline.
“We go forward,” center Derek Stepan said when asked about possibly playing without Zuccarello. “We’ve got to use our depth. We’ve got to make sure that we’ve got 20 guys pulling the same rope.”
The team’s depth on the blue line has also proven crucial. Without the injured Klein and with deadline-acquisition Keith Yandle playing through an illness for the last week, the Rangers held Pittsburgh to just eight goals in five games and kept Penguins star Evgeni Malkin off the score sheet the entire series.
Even their goaltending depth was tested when Henrik Lundqvist missed 25 games during the regular-season with a partially torn blood vessel in his neck. The Rangers didn’t miss a beat with Cam Talbot stepping in as he went 16-4-3 in his 23 starts.
Lundqvist, though, remains the team’s most important piece with all the talent surrounding him.
“Hank is our best player, and he’s gonna have to be moving forward,” Stepan said.
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