Reeling Rangers eye big boost vs. Bolts

February, 27, 2013
2/27/13
7:11
PM ET
Nash/McDonaghGetty ImagesRick Nash and Ryan McDonagh are expected to return to the Rangers on Thursday night.
GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Winless in their past four games, the Rangers appear to be in line for a big boost heading into Thursday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Madison Square Garden.

Although neither player would give a firm commitment, it appears that both star winger Rick Nash and top-pair defenseman Ryan McDonagh are poised to return to the lineup.

For an injury—ravaged squad that has struggled of late, that news comes as a huge relief.

“The guys that are out are pretty important guys,” coach John Tortorella said. “If you get some back in, it will certainly help.”

It would’ve been pretty easy for the Rangers to blame their recent woes on injuries. During their current 0-3-1 skid, the team has seen Nash and McDonagh felled by injuries, as well as another top-pair defenseman -- Michael Del Zotto. Even ironman blueliner Dan Girardi had to be helped off the ice in Saturday’s shutout loss to Montreal after blocking a shot with his foot, although he returned the next game.

[+] EnlargeHenrik Lundqvist
Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY SportsEven if Nash and McDonagh play, a struggling Henrik Lundqvist faces a mighty challenge ...
But dwelling over each absence would not have been a productive endeavor, nor would it have invoked much sympathy around the league -- has anyone seen what the Ottawa Senators have accomplished without both Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza, for example? -- so it was not ever a crutch the Rangers employed.

Still, the Rangers need to inject some life, and depth, into their lineup and the return of Nash and McDonagh may be just what the doctor ordered.

“Pucks aren’t going to flow around the ice like they potentially would when you have the full lineup. It’s a fine line there of staying patient and not trying to do too much and where you’re pressing and all of the sudden it’s in your net,” Brad Richards said. “We can’t do anything about injuries, but if they’re coming back, we’ll welcome them with open arms."

Richards would be one of the main benefactors in Nash’s return, especially if he reprises his role as first-line center between Nash and speedy forward Carl Hagelin against his former team on Thursday.

The 32-year-old veteran has gone 13 straight games without a goal, a painful slump that has caused both benchings and demotions for the alternate captain.

If the Rangers are to reclaim their swagger of 2011-12, when they finished with the top regular-season record in the Eastern Conference, the team will need top players like Richards, Marian Gaborik and captain Ryan Callahan to produce.

The last had one of his finest efforts of the season in Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, a performance Tortorella hopes will inspire those around him.

“He tried to will us to a win [Tuesday] night and he almost got us a point,” Tortorella said. “Other players, the more skillful guys, I think can take a lesson from that and add some of that grind and will in their game and it may help a lot of guys on the team to get out of their funk.”

[+] EnlargeSteven Stamkos
James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports... with sharpshooting Steven Stamkos in town.
Aiming to turn things around and recapture some confidence in the second game of a four-game homestand, the Rangers will entertain the eighth-place Lightning on Thursday night with a mere point separating the two teams in the standings.

Although the Bolts have surrendered two straight, they still boast one of the NHL’s elite talents in former first overall draft pick Steven Stamkos. Stamkos leads the league with 14 goals and 30 points and enters Thursday’s tilt on a six-game goal-scoring streak. The 23-year-old center has also racked up a whopping 13 points in the past seven games.

A lot of that comes down to his notorious shot, which he has an uncanny ability to rip past opposing defenders.

“He just has a knack for getting it off under pressure,” said defenseman Matt Gilroy, who played with Stamkos in Tampa. “His one-timer, he can one-time almost anything you throw at him -- hard, soft, wobbly, and his wrist shot is just as good, just lethal.”

With McDonagh back on defense, the Rangers will likely have a better chance at keeping Stamkos’ shot contained -- he registered a season-high eight shots on goal against Buffalo on Tuesday -- but reigning Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist is prepared for what he’ll be facing.

Lundqvist chastised himself Tuesday night for giving up the game-deciding fourth goal against the Jets to Winnipeg’s Evander Kane, and he’s not in the mood to mull another save he should’ve made.

“They’re a skilled team,” Lundqvist said. “Great shooters. You can’t give them too much space. They’re really tricky. But, if we play like last night, we have a good chance of winning.”
Katie Strang covers the NHL for ESPN.com. She is a graduate of Michigan State University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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