Rangers’ defense will look a little different when they take the ice for the first time in 12 days to their game Wednesday in Sunrise, Fla., Against the Panthers (unless and so far).
Ryan Lindgren has joined Jarred Tinordi, Alex Georgiev and latest addition Kevin Rooney on the COVID list, giving Adam Fox a new partner for the first time in this season’s 31 matches. His name is Libor Hajek.
“Play good defense, give him the puck and let him do the attack,” said the wise 23-year-old checking on the work of Fox, the reigning winner of the Norris Trophy. “And be there for him.”
Hajek did not dress for any of Blueshirts’ first 26 matches. He was a healthy scratch 21 times and in Hartford on a fitness assignment for the other five games. He finally got a peek at the Buffalo on December 10, while Tinordi was with the Wolf Pack for conditioning, and Nils Lundkvist was affected by a non-COVID-related illness.
This competition will mark the fifth in a row for Hajek, who has played an average of 12:42 ice time per game. match, while primarily collaborating with Patrik Nemeth on the third pair. Nemeth is reunited with Lundkvist for this one.
“He has played stably, you know? No mistake,” head coach Gerard Gallant said of Hajek. “He has played a solid game, he moves the puck well and skates well, so he is everything we thought we had in the guy. He did not get a chance to play early, it was hard, but we won matches and were happy with the line-up.
“But now that he has come in, he is not flashy, but he has played really good, solid hockey. “Now he’s probably going to get a chance to play for a few minutes and hopefully he’s getting better because he’s played well for us.”
Gallant had started sharing matchup tasks between the Lindgren-Fox couple and the K’Andre Miller-Jacob Trouba tandem. Hajek and Fox, who formed a duo for Fox’s NHL debut in the opening year 2019-20 and then in five games at the end of last season, will face their share of the top six strikers on the Florida list, who have four players on The COVID list, including selection winger Jonathan Huberdeau.
Post Sports + members, sign up have Mollie Walker send you the latest word on Rangers and answer with your thoughts and questions. Are you not yet a member of Sports +? Try it now.
“I’m ready for that,” Hajek said of the increased minutes and the responsibility that will come his way. “I’m fine. I feel more confident, I trust myself more, I’m better with the puck. I have to keep growing like that.
“The first 25 games at the start of the season were a bit tough, but that’s the way it is, that’s the sport. The biggest part [of my game] is defense, 100 percent defense, and then add some things to the offense. I remind myself of that and being good at first passes. “
Lindgren was an important part of the penalty kill, his 2:33 short time per. match leading team defenders. While Nemeth pairs up with Trouba on the penalty shootout, either Hajek or Miller will have to pick up Lindgren’s minutes with Fox. Hajek did not advance at all on the penalty kill in his previous four games, but Miller has skated a sum of 24:03 while he was shorthanded and has been on for a power-play goal against.
Once, when Rangers put Anton Stralman in the ranks almost a month after signing him as a free agent early in the 2011-12 season, then-head coach John Tortorella said unequivocally about the defender: “I did not know who the hell he was when we got him, and when I first saw him, I did not like him. “
Gallant did not quite reflect that feeling, but the coach, who has got Rangers off to a 19-7-4 start, representing the club’s best 30-game flight since 1993-94, admitted he did not have much of a book about Hajek before the defender came into the season too late.
“I did not know the player at the camp and I watched and tried to get to know the players I knew would be on our team,” Gallant said. “So to be honest with you, I did not know much of what to expect.
“But from what I see now, I’m definitely quite happy about it.”
And that means something to Hajek.
“It feels good,” he said. “It makes me want to push harder, make everything better and stay humble.”