Through two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the New York Rangers appeared to be fine without two key forwards in Brandon Dubinsky (ankle) and Mats Zuccarello (wrist). In fact, when injury struck during the regular season, the Rangers never were a team to lose a step because of it; they continued to trudge on and play through it, finding alternative ways to win hockey games. It appears as though their fortune may be running out as they crawl deeper and deeper into the postseason, however, as fatigue has clearly taken a toll on the team whether their head coach wants to admit it or not.
So at this time of year, especially with the Rangers in the current situation that they are, fresh legs become a major blessing when they enter the lineup. Just look to rookie Chris Kreider, who helped energize the Blueshirts since Game 3 of the quarterfinals when he made his debut against the Ottawa Senators. Or even Carl Hagelin, who is also a freshman and newcomer to the playoffs, as he continues to bring life to the rather dormant offense with his lightning speed.
This is why the Rangers are anxiously waiting on both Brandon Dubinsky and Mats Zuccarello to become healthy enough so that they could be inserted into the lineup, because the team needs their presence now more than ever.
Now some may argue that Dubinsky was practically invisible even before suffering an injury in Game 7 against the Senators nearly a month ago, but that's far beside the point right now. Whether he is going to come into the lineup and score goals or not is irrelevant, because it's more about the body than it is the actual player. Dubinsky at 75-percent will bring a lot more to each game than majority of the rest of the lineup, who are now probably at 50-percent, possibly lower.
And the same goes for Zuccarello, who may be looked at as even more of a threat than Dubinsky since the Hobbit is known for his quick feet and hands. Zuccarello, remember, helped to singlehandedly revive the Rangers' powerplay late in the regular season, which ultimately aided the Rangers in clinching the top spot in the Eastern Conference if you recall. So as far as Zuke goes, the squad will be getting more than just speed when he's ready to return.
How close are these two from jumping into the lineup?
Well, to start with Dubi, he's now skated with the team in full practice for several consecutive days now and has reported after each skate that his health is drastically improving. While he has kept mum on an exact timetable for his return, it does seem like he is closer to getting back than he's indicating. Of course, he's the only one who could and will determine that, but the fact that he's been skating in full contact practice is a very good sign.
As for Zuccarello, he's been working separately with the AHL taxi squad for about a week, until yesterday that is. Yesterday Zuke was called upon to join the main practice with the Rangers for the first time, which provoked much speculation that he could be ready to go as soon as tonight's Game 5 at Madison Square Garden.
If that is true, it becomes a matter of who is yanked out of the lineup, and right now I have two names in my head: Brian Boyle and John Mitchell. Brian Boyle has not been the same player since suffering a hit to the head from Chris Neil in round one, and that's even held true on the penalty-kill, which is where he normally thrives. He's slow following the puck and at least to me it seems as if he hasn't been blocking as many shots. And on offense, Boyle has been a non-factor for a while now.
And with John Mitchell, he hasn't contributed much since his game-winning assist to Marc Staal off an offensive zone draw in Game 5 of round two. I wouldn't mind seeing him yanked from the lineup at all, plus either Dubinsky or Zuccarello will have much more of an impact than he has throughout these playoffs.
So now it becomes a waiting game, and hopefully the waiting does not proceed until it is too late.