Healthy Filip Chytil, Blake Wheeler could give Rangers lift against Panthers in conference final

NHL: Calgary Flames at New York Rangers
Danny Wild-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

A group of New York Rangers were at Madison Square Garden on Sunday to witness first-hand how important depth is when trying to win a championship.

Artemi Panarin, Alexis Lafreniere, Ryan Lindgren, Kaapo Kakko, Jack Roslovic and Will Cuylle received a massive ovation from the sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden when shown on the jumbotron during Game 7 of the second-round NBA playoff series between the Knicks and Indiana Pacers.

Seeing the six Rangers stars likely was the highlight for the Garden Faithful. The Knicks valiantly tried once again to persevere with a an injury-ravaged lineup. But they came up way short, losing 130-109, their rousing season cut short in playoff elimination.

Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson and Bojan Bogdanovic were already sidelined by season-ending injuries. Josh Hart and OG Anunoby gave heroic efforts despite significant injuries, Anunoby limited to just five minutes of playing time. And their biggest star, Jalen Brunson, hampered throughout the series with an injured foot, left for good in the third quarter with a fractured hand.

It’s a warning for any playoff team in any sport. Injuries can derail a season and a team’s championship hopes. And quality depth is invaluable to make a long playoff run.

Which brings us to the Rangers, who returned to practice Sunday following two days off on the heels of knocking out the Carolina Hurricanes in six games in the Eastern Conference Second Round. The optional skate was well attended, though Adam Fox was among those not taking part.

But by and large, the Rangers are healthy and rested, having played just 10 playoff games heading into the Eastern Conference Final, which begins Wednesday against the Florida Panthers.

And it appears Filip Chytil and Blake Wheeler are ready to play roles for the Blueshirts against the Panthers if called upon by coach Peter Laviolette. Those are significant pieces added to New York’s roster depth and lineup options.

“We’re working toward that,” Laviolette said Sunday. “Everybody’s out on the ice. Everybody to this point has been out on the ice. As of recently, there’s not been any restrictions on players.”

Related: Rangers vs. Panthers X-factors for Eastern Conference Final

Rangers roster depth improves with addition of healthy Filip Chytil, Blake Wheeler

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at New York Rangers
Danny Wild-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Chytil and Wheeler reportedly made it clear that they’re ready to contribute in the conference final. Each is coming an extended injury absence and eager to help the Blueshirts reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 10 years.

“I want to play,” Chytil told Gannett’s Vince Mercogliano. “I didn’t join to just watch the guys from the stands and have a vacation in New York and Florida. I want to play. I’m going to do my best any time I get put in the lineup.”

Chytil missed six months after sustaining an upper-body injury believed to be a concussion Nov. 2. The 24-year-old had a setback in January and didn’t play again until Game 3 against the Hurricanes. However, after logging 12 minutes in that game, Chytil missed Game 4 because of an illness.

It’s not clear if also missing the final two games of the series was a coach’s decision or health-related. But Chytil practiced Sunday and is obviously hungry to get back in the lineup, likely on the third line.

Then there’s Wheeler, who’s recovery from a significant lower-body injury in February prompted Laviolette to say, “It’s amazing to see the work he put in. It’s incredible the way he attacked this.”

The 37-year-old incredibly is a lineup option now for Laviolette after practicing the past week with the team. And that was his goal all along.

“Sitting on the couch, watching these guys play. I just want to be back with the guys, with the group on the ice with them in any capacity I can,” Wheeler told the New York Post. “That’s kind of been my goal the whole time since I got hurt, was to be an option and be available again. That’s where we’re at. My goal is to be available and be an option.”

Now it’s up to Laviolette how to deploy his available players. The Rangers are 8-2 through two rounds, have no significant hole in the lineup and don’t appear to have any concerning injuries to speak of up front.

If Chytil is added to the third line, that’d likely knock Cuylle to the fourth line and keep Matt Rempe and Jonny Brodzinski out of the lineup. At this stage, Wheeler would appear to be a fourth-line option, barring injury among the top-nine forwards. His presence could send any or all of Cuylle, Rempe and Brodzinski to the press box.

But good health and a deep roster is a gift in the postseason. If the Rangers have any doubts about that, they only need to ask their Garden neighbors.

Jim Cerny is Executive Editor at Forever Blueshirts and Managing Editor at Sportsnaut, with more than 30 years of... More about Jim Cerny

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