Injured Rangers forward takes major step forward at practice

NHL: New York Rangers at Anaheim Ducks
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Blake Wheeler returned to practice with the New York Rangers on Monday, one day after they skated to a 4-3 win in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Carolina Hurricanes.

The veteran forward wore a red, no-contact jersey in his first full practice with the team since sustaining a gruesome lower-body injury Feb. 15. Wheeler was ruled out for the rest of the regular season but had been skating on his own before Monday.

Rangers coach Peter Laviolette said it was a big step forward for Wheeler and an important one for the team as a whole.

“It’s great. You’re hoping [the playoffs] are a long road to get to the end and you know you’re going to need a lot of bodies,” Laviolette explained after practice. “So, to see Blake back out there even though it was a different colored jersey is, I think, really important for him, for our team. It’s the steps in the process of him getting back to being available, whenever that might be.”

Related: This line needs to produce goals for Rangers against Hurricanes

Blake Wheeler practicing with Rangers after lower-body injury nearly 3 months ago

NHL: New York Rangers at Winnipeg Jets
James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

Wheeler was injured on a hit by Montreal Canadiens defenseman Kaidan Guhle in a 7-4 Rangers win right before the Stadium Series outdoor games against the Islanders.

The 37-year-old’s injury shook up his teammates.

“As much as these guys are teammates, we lost a friend,” Rangers captain Jacob Trouba said at the time. “He’s obviously going through something no one wants to go through. There’s more to it than just the impact to the team. We all care a lot about hockey and our jobs, but we’re all humans and friends and, I’m not saying this is true, but maybe he played his last hockey game.”

Chris Kreider added that the injury was “heartbreaking.”

Though in his first seasons with the Rangers, the former Winnipeg Jets captain quickly became a leader on and off the ice in New York. He’s a popular and well-respected teammate, one who’s value goes beyond his nine goals and 21 points in 54 games this season.

“It’s a tough one. He hasn’t been here very long but the impact he’s had on and off the ice has been great for us,” Mika Zibanejad said before the Stadium Series in February. “Unbelievable player. Unbelievable person and teammate.”

Wheeler follows Filip Chytil as an injured Rangers forward who’s returned to practice. Chytil, who’s been out since Nov. 2 with an upper-body injury believed to be a concussion, has been practicing with the Rangers for four weeks, though he hasn’t played in a game.

New York has used the same lineup for each its five postseason games, so far, posting a perfect 5-0 record ahead of Game 2 against the Hurricanes at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday.

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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