When would a coach rather have 12 players than 15?

When you’re the head coach of a National Hockey League team.

That is the scenario facing John Tortorella.

Tortorella said before the last night’s 4-3 shootout loss to Penguins at The Garden that Dan Girardi, Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky would play. He also announced that center Vinny Prospal may dress for the first time all season Thursday against the Devils.

Most coaches would be pleased at the prospects of adding NHL-quality talent to their team without being forced to subtract players. And the coach is. But the returns of Callahan, Dubinsky and, eventually, Prospal and Erik Christensen present a most difficult, if intriguing, dilemma. Tortorella will have five full forward lines available to him. So the questions becomes who sits? Who gets set to AHL Connecticut?

Already, there has been speculation that Chris Drury could be a candidate to be scratched once the team is at full strength. One player who won’t sit, at least for the time being, is Mats Zuccarello. Tortorella has repeatedly praised the job Whale coaches have done in preparing players to be able to step in and contribute at the NHL level. The Rangers have dressed Zuccarello, Newbury, Evgeny Grachev, Chad Kolarik, Michael Del Zotto, Ryan McDonagh and Brodie Dupont at points during the first 52 games, and all performed well.

“It gives the guys the opportunities. Some guys seize the opportunities (and Zuccarello) certainly has,” Tortorella said. “It’s really good stuff for the organization and I go back to Kenny (Gernander, the head coach of the Whale) and that group down there. They’ve done their work with those guys to keep them ready. He’s one that they’re not going to see back for a little bit.”

Ironically, as the Rangers entered the match with bodies returning, the Penguins were losing people. Pittsburgh did not dress Sidney Crosby (concussion) and Evgeni Malkin (sinus infection) for the game, and lost Mark Letestu to an apparent knee injury at the early skate. It was suggested to Tortorella during his pre-game press conference that his team might take the undermanned Pens for granted. Tortorella immediately dismissed that notion.

“We’re not good enough. We have to be ready at all times. That’s still a good hockey team over there. Their back end is one of the better back ends in the league,” Tortorella said. “We’re preparing as we have to as a hockey club to be the best we can be. That’s the only way we’ll be able to compete in the league.”

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