Another defenseman set to return from injury for Rangers

NHL: Florida Panthers at New York Rangers
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Rangers defense corps appears to be fully healthy for the first time in nearly a month with each of their six regulars ready to play against the New Jersey Devils at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.

Erik Gustafsson was back in a regular jersey at practice Tuesday and reclaimed his usual spot on the third defensive pair with Braden Schneider. The 32-year-old has missed four games since sustaining an upper-body injury in a 4-3 shootout win against the Florida Panthers on March 23.

Gustafsson said he’s “100 percent” but coach Peter Laviolette didn’t confirm the defenseman’s return to the lineup against the Devils. However, the Rangers did assign extra defenseman Brandon Scanlin to Hartford of the American Hockey League on Tuesday.

“I think anytime you get players back, it’s a great thing. Anytime you get them out of a different colored jersey and get them in a regular colored jersey and have them practice and take contact, that’s a positive, as well,” Laviolette said. “So, we’ll assess it and see where he’s at.”

Prior to his injury, Gustafsson had moved up in the lineup when Ryan Lindgren was sidelined with a lower-body injury. Schneider had also moved up after Jacob Trouba sustained a lower-body injury.

When Gustafsson went down, the Rangers were without three of their regular defensemen for a wild 6-5 overtime win against the Philadelphia Flyers on March 26. However, Lindgren returned the next game, a win against the Colorado Avalanche, and Trouba was back for an 8-5 win Saturday against the Arizona Coyotes.

Related: Jacob Trouba puts positive spin on bad night for Rangers

Erik Gustafsson set to return for Rangers from upper-body injury

NHL: New York Rangers at Seattle Kraken
Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Gustafsson has 30 points (six goals, 24 assists) and averages 17:14 in ice time in 70 games this season. It is his second straight season with 30+ points (he had 42 with the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs in 2022-23) and third in eight NHL seasons. He had an NHL career-high 60 points (17 goals, 43 assists) in 2018-19 with the Chicago Blackhawks.

When called upon to add an extra workload because of injury on the blue line this season, Gustafsson has delivered. First, when Adam Fox missed 10 games in November, then recently when Trouba and Lindgren were out of the lineup.

Schneider also excelled when he moved up the lineup and joined K’Andre Miller on the second pairing.

Zac Jones is the odd man out with all the defensemen healthy. The 23-year-old excelled the past 13 games, helping the Rangers to a 10-3-0 record in that stretch. Jones was solid in his own end, made quick, smart decisions with the puck and contributed four points (one goal, three assists) the past 13 games. He even logged a season-high 22:58 in ice time in the win against the Flyers.

This season, Jones has appeared in an NHL career-high 30 games and established career bests with two goals, seven assists and nine points.

“We’re fortunate that we have a lot of good defensemen here right now, we have great depth for the playoffs,” Laviolette said.

The Rangers have a little less than three weeks before the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin, plenty of time in the final eight regular-season games to get the defensive corps fully back in form. Since Trouba returned, the Rangers have allowed an uncharacteristic 10 goals, though two were into an empty net in a 5-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday.

Laviolette absolved Trouba after the loss Monday, when the Rangers captain placed blame for poor defensive play on his own shoulders.

“When they come back, it just takes a minute to get up to speed … to get back to being yourself. There’s always a process for all of the players,” Laviolette explained postgame. “I have no doubt in my mind that when it comes time for the playoffs and we need warriors on the ice that [Trouba] will be there in full force.”

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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