It is hyperbole to state unequivocally that the story of the 2016-17 New York Rangers season will be determined by what transpires over the next two months.
That is not to say, however, that the Blueshirts are about to embark on a strenuous journey, one that will reveal the makeup of one of the National Hockey League’s most fascinating stories in the still embryonic stages of the campaign.
“Every team has injuries and we don’t expect to be any different than anybody else,” Alain Vigneault said after the Rangers’ 3-2 shootout loss to Florida at the Garden Sunday night. The loss was magnified by the revelation that Mika Zibanejad sustained a broken left fibula early in the overtime period.
Zibanejad had gotten his legs tangled with those of Florida winger Reilly Smith, and the center went feet first into the end boards behind Henrik Lundqvist.
Following the game, Vigneault said Zibanejad would miss six-to-eight weeks. He went on to suggest the Rangers could move Brandon Pirri into a top-nine center role, and have Josh Jooris center the fourth line.
“Every coach says it in these moments, it’s an opportunity for somebody else to get more ice time,” Vigneault said. “We are confident with our guys, whoever we decide to put in that spot will do the job for us.”
In Monday night’s 5-2 win over the Penguins in Pittsburgh Monday night, Kevin Hayes centered a line with Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello. Hayes also assisted on J.T. Miller’s game-winning, short-handed goal late in the second period.
After spotting the Penguins a 2-0 lead in the first, the Rangers scored the game’s final five goals.
“[Vigneault] made it pretty apparent through video what we were doing wrong and how were were going to have to play to turn it around,” defenseman Marc Staal told the New York Post after the win. “He tried to go positive to get us going negative and beating us down. And I think we responded.”
The win was the culmination of day which began with the announcement that Matt Puempel had been claimed off of waivers from Ottawa. During the MSG Network broadcast of the game, play-by-play man Sam Rosen said the forward would join the team in New York. The Rangers will play the second half of their home-and-home series Wednesday night against the reigning, defending, undisputed Stanley Cup Champions.
Puempel has a career slash line of four goals and two assists for six points in 52 NHL games spanning three seasons. The 23-year old also has 24 career penalty minutes. In 13 games this season, Puempel has not scored but has generated 24 shots in 111 minutes of ice time.
Ottawa selected Puempel with the 24th pick in the 2011 draft.
Essentially, Puempel adds depth to a forward group without having to subtract anyone off the NHL roster or any of the organization’s prospects. It’s a no-cost risk for a Rangers team that leads the Metropolitan Division by four points over Pittsburgh, and trails NHL-best Montreal by one point.
The Rangers enter Wednesday night’s game with a 14-5-1 record, and have 29 points.
Still, the question is where the Rangers will be once Zibanejad returns.
After Wednesday’s game, the Rangers have matches against the following squads: Philadelphia, Ottawa, Carolina, Buffalo, Carolina, the Islanders, Winnipeg, Chicago, New Jersey, Chicago, Dallas, Nashville, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Ottawa, Arizona and Colorado to end the calendar year 2016.
The law of averages suggests the Rangers won’t win the remaining 19 games in 2016. Should they win 10 games, though, that’s 20 points to the 29 already accumulated for a total of 49. And that’s not accounting for games decided in overtime or the shootout.
A hypothetical 49 points after the first three months of the season would, in theory, put the Rangers in good position for the final 14 weeks of the campaign.