Nearly three weeks after playing their most recent game, the Rangers are finally closing in on a return to action Thursday night when they host the Chicago Blackhawks at Madison Square Garden. And after several days of speculation and debate, head coach Alain Vigneault has settled on his lineup for the contest against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Vigneault confirned on Wednesday that J.T. Miller--recalled Tuesday from Hartford--will take the injured Mats Zuccarello's spot in the lineup, as well as on the line with Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot. In addition Daniel Carcillo will remain on the team's fourth line alongside Brian Boyle and Dominic Moore, while Derek Dorsett will remain out of the lineup, missing his 18th straight game following a fractured fibula on January 3rd.
"J.T. is more of an offensive-type player and fits there, and the fact that Dors has been away almost seven weeks--and this was his first real full team practice today--he's not going to (play) tomorrow vs. Chicago," explained Vigneault. "I just felt that (Dorsett) needed another full team practice, and starting against the defending Stanley Cup champions might not be a real simple and easy thing. This will give him a couple more days."
The head coach admitted that Dorsett likely would not be happy about his decision, but the rugged winger was only cleared for contact drills on Monday and has put in three solid days of practice since. Vigneault added that the solid play of Carcillo and the chemistry he has built on the fourth line made it easier to not rush Dorsett back from injury.
"Dan has played extremely well and has brought the energy our scouts and other people thought he would," added Vigneault. "Our record with him in the lineup (11-4-0) is very good. That line has a pretty good identity, and the fact that we lost Mats--one of our better offensive players--we felt it would be better not to juggle everything and just bring another offensive type player in. J.T. has been playing well, so we are giving him the chance."
Miller has 26 points in 26 games with Hartford this season, and produced a career-high four point-game less than two weeks ago. With the Rangers Miller has four points in 25 games this season.
In 37 games before getting hurt, Dorsett had three goals, five points, and a team-high 103 penalty minutes. He was averaging 11:24 worth of ice time per game, and was a valuable member of the club's penalty killing unit. Carcillo was acquired after Dorsett was injured and has played fewer minutes than Dorsett had been, but has been an effective energy player who has chipped in with a pair of goals, including the game-winner in the outdoor Stadium Series clash with the Islanders on January 29th.
"I am really thankful to be here and to have an opportunity again, especially to play with such highly-talented people like (Brassard and Pouliot)," Miller said after practice. "I have high expectations of myself, so I'm going to play my game--hard, physical, and help those two as much as I can."
Vigneault also confirmed that Cam Talbot will start in goal against the Blackhawks, and later added that Henrik Lundqvist would start the next game Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia. The Rangers follow that contest with a home tilt Sunday against the Boston Bruins, but the head coach stopped short of saying who might get the call between the pipes in that one.
"We can't think about what we did a couple of weeks ago, except to remember how hard we worked," Lundqvist said of his team's 16-6-1 run to the Olympic break. "That's the thing to remember: that we worked really hard to achieve what we did. It's going to be a big challenge down the stretch here, but it's going to be fun, exciting, too."
Defenseman Marc Staal practiced for a second straight day after missing three straight on-ice sessions due to back spasms, and afterwards Vigneault said he expected Staal to be able to play against the Blackhawks and that he would "make the call in the morning" on Thursday.
Staal added that he felt better again Wednesday, and that "if it stays the same as today, I'll be alright" for the Chicago game.