Inspiring return ends on sour note for Rangers veteran in Game 4 loss to Panthers

NHL: Calgary Flames at New York Rangers
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Blake Wheeler was back in the New York Rangers lineup for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday. But his inspiring return from an ugly lower-body injury to play his first game since February ended with a major thud in New York’s 3-2 overtime loss to Florida.

Wheeler was sitting in the penalty box when Sam Reinhart wired the game-winning overtime goal over Igor Shesterkin’s glove at 1:12 to send the best-of-7 series back to Madison Garden on Thursday tied 2-2.

The penalty was the result of many things, none of them good for the Rangers. Mika Zibanejad’s pass for Wheeler near the blue line in the offensive zone was batted away by Panthers defenseman Niko Mikkola. That created a race the other way through center ice and into the Rangers zone, one that even under the best of circumstances, would be tough for Wheeler to win.

The puck found Aleksander Barkov, who broke in alone on Shesterkin, and Wheeler hooked the Panthers captain from behind, obstructing his shot attempt, though Shesterkin did make a save.

“It was a tough spot for [Wheeler] to be in,” Rangers coach Peter Laviolette said. “There was a lot of heat on, a lot of pressure. It was more what they did, I think, than him doing something.”

At first it appeared a penalty shot would be called but the officials instead sent Wheeler off for a two-minute minor. Florida won the ensuing face off, zipped the puck around and within 13 seconds it was in the back of the net, the game was over and Wheeler dejectedly exited the box.

“He got jammed up there on that call,” Laviolette offered.

Zibanejad later took responsibility for a poor pass that led to the turnover and rush back then other way.

“Obviously I should have probably made a different play, decision,” Zibanejad explained. “Just come back and try to make other decisions next time and hope that it goes my way.”

Related: ‘Poor Jake’: Panthers coach reacts to Jacob Trouba’s fine for elbowing penalty

Blake Wheeler inspires Rangers despite costly penalty

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Florida Panthers
Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Wheeler logged 9:18 in ice time, playing 15 shifts, largely with Matt Rempe and Barclay Goodrow on the fourth line. Fired up to be back playing for the first time in more than three months, the 37-year-old was credited with three hits in the first period alone. He finished with four hits, 2 blocked shots and one takeaway.

“I thought he came in and there was times where Goodrow, Rempe and Wheeler put it in the offensive zone and they actually stayed down there,” Laviolette said. “Able to occupy some time and spend some minutes down there. First game back in a while. I thought he was good.”

The fact that Wheeler even was playing in a game was something. When he sustained his injury against the Montreal Canadiens on Feb. 15, the Rangers said it was season-ending. He did miss the rest of the regular season, but worked so hard that he became an option to return to the lineup roughly a week ago.

“I think it speaks more to the character of the guy. Just the type of person he is,” Rangers captain Jacob Trouba said. “Not everybody would take the three-month journey to work their way back in that situation. That just speaks to the character of the man, of who he is. We saw how hard he worked the past three-plus months to come back and play and contribute to our team.”

Wheeler’s re-entry meant that Filip Chytil was a healthy scratch after playing three straight games, and four overall in the postseason. Chytil is scoreless in the playoffs after missing six months with an upper-body injury believed to be a concussion. Laviolette said that taking Chytil out of the lineup was not unexpected considering his long recovery.

With Jimmy Vesey sidelined for the rest of this round with an upper-body injury, there’s a spot to be had in the lineup. Rempe, Wheeler, Chytil and Kaapo Kakko have cycled in and out of the lineup the past few games, and the only forward who hasn’t played in this series is Jonny Brodzinski.

Not surprisingly, Laviolette didn’t tip his hand as to what his Game 5 lineup might look like.

That crucial fifth game takes place at Madison Square Garden on Thursday. And you know Wheeler is champing at the bit to get some redemption.

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

Mentioned in this article:

More About: