Panthers coach hopes Blake Wheeler returns for Rangers in Eastern Conference Final

NHL: New York Rangers at Pittsburgh Penguins
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With Blake Wheeler practicing full-contact, there’s a chance the New York Rangers could see him at some point during the Eastern Conference Final against the Florida Panthers.

Turns out, Panthers coach Paul Maurice is rooting for the 37-year-old to make his return to the ice.

“I’m hoping he plays, for him,” Maurice said Monday. “He’s a hard-working man. That injury, to come back from it, to be good, he will have done everything he possibly can to get back.”

Wheeler suffered a nasty-looking injury to his right leg on February 15th against the Montreal Canadiens. The Rangers ruled him out for the remainder of the regular season soon after, and there were questions whether that was the end of the tough veteran’s NHL career.

Now, just three months later, Wheeler is back on the ice, a full participant at practice and a lineup option for coach Peter Laviolette.

Whether or not Laviolette turns to him is another question. All signs point to Filip Chytil returning to the Rangers lineup for Game 1 on Wednesday. That likely means Wheeler, Matt Rempe and Jonny Brodzinski will be scratched, and Will Cuylle will shift down to the fourth line.

“It’s going to be in the coach’s hands,” Wheeler told The Athletic.

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Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Regardless of whether or not he plays in the series, the fact that Wheeler has returned to practice alone is a testament to his toughness. Wheeler’s been known to fight through injuries, most notably last year when he finished a game despite having a ruptured testicle.

It’s a toughness that Maurice got to see every day for nine years. Wheeler played under him for the entirety of his tenure as coach of the Winnipeg Jets, serving as the team captain for Maurice’s final five seasons. And that’s far from the only personal connection between the Rangers and Panthers heading into this best-of-7 series.

Jacob Trouba broke into the NHL during Maurice’s first season with Winnipeg in 2013-14, and played his first six seasons in the NHL with the Jets. Vincent Trocheck made his NHL debut with the Panthers in 2013 alongside Aleksander Barkov and played seven seasons there. Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky have a close relationship from their time together with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Even players like Vladimir Tarasenko and Niko Mikkola of the Panthers had short stints with the Rangers last season, coming over ahead of the NHL trade deadline.

“There’s connections all over the place,” Maurice said. “I don’t think it affects you even a bit. You don’t even think about it. That puck drops and that is so far from something you would consider. You’re not laying off hits on a guy, you go as hard as you can, as fast as you can, you get off the ice.”

There are, in fact, connections all over the place. There’s even a link between Maurice and Laviolette. During the 2003-04 season, Laviolette replaced Maurice as coach of the Carolina Hurricanes. Maurice then returned to Carolina to replace Laviolette midway through the 2008-09 season. Both coaches left notes on the board for the other when they were fired.

“I think it’s great stories on the way in. I think it makes for a good handshake line. But I don’t think it will affect the series at all,” Maurice concluded.

Lou Orlando has spent the past two seasons as a New York Rangers beat reporter for WFUV Sports. The... More about Lou Orlando

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