There isn’t exactly an overabundance of skill on the current Rangers roster, so when two of the most offensively gifted players were watching from afar, it’s not a coincidence the Blueshirts could never beat Flyers goalie Anthony Stolarz in Tuesday night’s 1-0 loss at the Garden.
But there is a good chance they could be getting one, if not both, of those pieces back as the post-break schedule continues with Thursday night’s match against the Devils in Newark.
Winger Mats Zuccarello practiced fully on Wednesday with his top line of Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad as he battles back from a foot infection. He has been taking antibiotics, and said the heel of his foot still hurts, so it’s just a matter of being able to play through the pain.
“I feel good. It’s just hurting a little bit,” Zuccarello said. “But it’s going to hurt for a little bit. So we’ll see if I can deal with the pain. We’ll see how it feels.”
The other talented winger is Pavel Buchnevich, who was a healthy scratch against Philadelphia, with coach David Quinn trying to make a point by putting him in street clothes and dressing seven defensemen — a lineup he repeatedly said he “doesn’t love.”
Buchnevich practiced Wednesday back on the fourth line with Boo Nieves and Cody McLeod, and it’s more than likely he’s going to be there come Thursday night — or moved up in the lineup if Zuccarello can’t go.
This was the third time this season (fourth game) Quinn has felt the need to scratch the 23-year-old Russian, and he even evaluated his demeanor in Wednesday’s practice.
“It was pretty good, pretty good effort,” Quinn said. “I liked his attitude today, too.”
The hope is that Buchnevich can respond and begin to add on to the nine goals and 15 points he has in 32 games (having missed 13 games with a broken thumb). Quinn planned to talk to him later on Wednesday afternoon, and was looking for a positive outlook.
“Good news is he usually responds in circumstances like this,” Quinn said. “Hopefully that’s the case again. We need him.”
The organization has to make a decision on Buchnevich, who is going to be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights at the end of the season. This is the second coach, along with Alain Vigneault, who has struggled to get consistency out of him, and has moved him up and down the lineup in hopes of finding a spark.
Meanwhile, Zuccarello’s game was just starting to get better before the break. He had four goals and five assists in the five previous games, but thinks blocking a shot against the Blackhawks on Jan. 17 is what could have started the infection.
“I blocked a shot against Chicago, so my heel was kind of swollen,” Zuccarello said. “I think it just came from that. I honestly don’t know. I don’t think [the doctors] know either. It’s just an infection.”
What is clear is the Rangers would like to score quite a bit more, their 2.73 goals per game ranking them 27th in the league going into Wednesday night’s action. Zuccarello is tied for fourth on the team with 24 points (eight goals, 16 assists) in just 35 games. He missed close to a month with a nagging groin injury, returning Dec. 14.
But since then, he has been one of the team’s better players, and when he’s not there to produce offensively it’s hard for someone else to pick up the slack.
“Obviously that line was doing a great job, been very productive offensively,” Quinn said. “I thought he was the guy kind of making the difference. To lose him certainly didn’t help our cause.”
Zuccarello is also acutely aware of his situation leading up to the Feb. 25 trade deadline, when he is more than likely to be moved. But for now, he is just trying to play well for the Rangers and move past this infection.
“It always sucks to get hurt, it doesn’t matter how it’s going or not,” he said. “Obviously you want to be out there and playing. For sure it sucks.”