By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers suffered a major blow to their lineup on Sunday night when Mika Zibanejad crashed leg-first into the endboards 33 seconds into overtime of the 3-2 shootout loss to the visiting Florida Panthers.
After the game, head coach Alain Vigneault revealed that the 23-year-old center is set to miss 6-8 weeks due to a broken left fibula.
Similar to the hit musical "Hamilton," Zibanejad has become an instant sensation on Broadway. It won't be easy for the Blueshirts to fill the 6-foot-2 Swede's skates. Zibanejad adapted quickly to Vigneault's uptempo system and is a key component of a high-octane group that is averaging a league-leading four goals per game.
Zibanejad has been instrumental in the Rangers' power play rising to seventh overall in the NHL (22 percent) after finishing 14th overall (18.6 percent) last season. His right-handed shot is a real weapon in man-advantage situations as he leads the Blueshirts with five power play points.
"Zibanejad's a player that we liked for a while," Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton said during the preseason. "We like his package of skating, skill, his ability to score, the fact that he's a right-handed shot on the power play. He's a pretty well-rounded player defensively. The thing you throw on top of that is his age. He's a younger player that's scored 20 goals twice in the league."
He extended his point streak to three games by scoring in the third period on Sunday and has chipped in 15 points, including 10 assists, through his first 19 times as a Ranger. Zibanejad ranks third among Rangers forwards with 16:40 of ice time per game and is tied for first with 2:43 power play TOI per game. Additionally, he has averaged 25 shorthanded seconds per game.
Vigneault said that no call-up is planned ahead of Monday's game in Pittsburgh. The 13-5-1 Rangers are currently carrying 12 healthy forwards. That means, at least over the short-term, center Oscar Lindberg will re-enter the lineup. It is also possible that 22-year-old center Cristoval "Boo" Nieves could be recalled at some point down the line. Vigneault was unsure of how his lines would be reshuffled when he spoke following Sunday's game.
"Every team has injuries and we don't expect to be any different than anybody else," Vigneault said. "Every coach says in these moments, it's an opportunity for somebody else to get more ice time. We are confident with our guys, whoever we decide to put in that spot will do the job for us. We've got some options there in the middle with Josh (Jooris), Pirrs (Brandon Pirri) and Oscar -- obviously."
An enormous test awaits the Rangers in their Monday-Wednesday home-and-home against the Penguins. They will mark the first time the Blueshirts have tangled with the reigning Stanley Cup champions since the Pens eliminated them in the first-round of last season's playoffs. It is the matchup hockey fans are craving as the Rangers now boast the team speed to go toe-to-toe with their Metropolitan Division rivals.
The Zibanejad injury isn't the Rangers only problem on the injury front. Russian playmaker Pavel Buchnevich will not travel with the team to Pittsburgh. The 21-year-old forward has been troubled by back problems and Vigneault has acknowledged that the injury could be "more than back spasms." The winger will undergo an MRI on Monday.
For now, the Rangers will have to press on without two players that offer quite a bit. It's "next man up" time for the Blueshirts. In times like these, teams show how much mettle they have in the locker room. The Rangers are going to need to pull together, and quickly.
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