The boys are back! Well at least the ones who are not still taking part in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
That technicality aside, the Rangers were back on the ice Thursday morning for their first practice since starting the Olympic break nearly two weeks ago. Several of the Rangers were sporting tans from venturing south for a bit of R&R during the break, though none had as much color as the team's head coach Alain Vigneault.
Though he may have enjoyed his mid-winter break, Vigneault was all business Thursday, stating that his club is "going to use this time well" over the next week to prepare for a final stretch in which the Rangers will play 23 games in a span of 44 days to close out the 2013-14 season. Vigneault said he has specific goals for his club each day at practice, including on-ice conditioning tests that will take place Saturday, with results compared to those from training camp this past September.
"We've really planned this well in my estimation," stated Vigneault, who added that he hopes the remaining six Blueshirt Olympians will "all come back energized" from their experience in Sochi. Those six--Henrik Lundqvist, Carl Hagelin, Rick Nash, Ryan Callahan, Ryan McDonagh, and Derek Stepan--are scheduled to return to New York on Monday, and the head coach said they will not be required to practice until next Wednesday.
Mats Zuccarello, the team's leading scorer this season, is ariving in New York on Thursday afternoon and will have his injured left hand examined by one of the Rangers' doctors later in the day. An MRI in Russia confirmed that Zuccarello suffered a non-displaced fracture in his left hand during preliminary round play while representing Norway, and the Rangers doctor will conduct his own examination to determine how long Zuccarello will be sidelined.
"I am not going to speculate at all until our doctors evaluate him," Vigneault said of Zuccarello, who has 43 points in 58 games. "You know every four years the players get the chance to represent their country..and those (injuries) are the risks that come with the game. It's unfortunate that it happened to Mats, and hopefully it won't be that long."
Rugged winger Derek Dorsett, who has missed 17 consecutive games after suffering a leg fracture on January 3rd in Pittsburgh, skated with his teammates for the first time since the injury. It was the second straight day on the ice for Dorsett, who skated by himself on Wednesday and who wore the yellow non-contact jersey at Thursday's practice.
"He looked fine today, but he hasn't skated in a long time so the conditioning is a question, we'll see how he is tomorrow," Vigneault said of Dorsett. "Next Thursday he should be close..close, if not ready..when we play Chicago."
As for the players, it was a pretty tiring workout Thursday, though each Ranger made sure to work on their conditioning during the break, and most of the players found time--and ice--to skate. All seemed happy to be back at work, and ready for the big push and challenge that awaits them over the final seven weeks of the season.
"This isn't a natural thing for anyone in the league," Brad Richards said of the three-week break in the schedule. "You hope everyone comes back as healthy as possible and as refreshed as possible. The guys who are here already, our bodies are feeling good, which is pretty rare this time of the year. Going into March pretty much healthy, that doesn't happen too often. We can use that as a plus as we get right back to work. This is the best time of year to be playing hockey."
The Rangers will practice on Friday in between the two Olympic semifinal games with Lundqvist and Hagelin leading Sweden against Finland before Nash and Team Canada square off against a U.S. squad featuring Callahan, McDonagh, and Stepan.
"We're proud of them (Ranger teammates) and we're rooting them on," explained Brian Boyle. "We may have our own countries to root for, but we want our guys to do well. It's a great thing for us to have so many guys over there."