TORONTO — The Rangers have had their depth tested early, with two injuries and one COVID-19 protocol designation all coming within the first three games of the season.
Sammy Blais sustained a minor upper-body injury that sidelined him in the home opener, Ryan Strome went into COVID-19 protocol ahead of the Rangers’ trip to Canada and now Kaapo Kakko is on injured reserve after an early exit with an undisclosed upper-body injury in Saturday’s win over the Canadiens.
The pecking order is already dwindling, with the Rangers recalling Morgan Barron from Hartford on Sunday. But for Julien Gauthier, who made the opening-night roster out of training camp, the only thing left to do is wait until it’s his time.
“It’s really hard, you know. It’s not as easy as people think sometimes,” Gauthier said of how he remains motivated despite being a healthy scratch for a majority of his tenure with the Rangers. “It comes from you. Every day, you try to wake up and think it’s a new day and you go back to work. I think my work ethic is good, so try to keep that up.
“Obviously, it’s not as easy with your motivation sometimes, but you just keep going through it.”
Head coach Gerard Gallant primarily played Gauthier at right wing on the third line next to Filip Chytil and Barclay Goodrow throughout the preseason. If Goodrow fills in for the injured Kakko in the right-wing spot on the second line with Artemi Panarin and Filip Chytil, Gauthier could be inserted in his usual spot.
“They’re always tough decisions, there’s no doubt about it,” Gallant said of opting not to dress Gauthier against the Canadiens on Saturday. “He’s a good kid, he’s played well, he’s worked hard for us. You look at our lineup, and you say maybe we need a penalty killer here and maybe we need a different type of player here.”
“When you’re making your lineup with your coaches and your staff, that’s what you look at. You look at different things. I want to play everybody. There’s nothing worse for a coach than telling guys they can’t play. But that’s part of our job and that’s what we have to do.”
The Rangers had an optional practice in Toronto on Sunday, which only a handful of players attended.
In addition to goalie Alexandar Georgiev, the other Rangers who skated included Alexis Lafreniere, Nils Lundkvist, K’Andre Miller, Blais, Dryden Hunt, Gauthier, Jarred Tinordi, Libor Hajek and Greg McKegg.
Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews, who missed the first three games of Toronto’s season while recovering from wrist surgery, said Sunday he expects to make his season debut against the Rangers on Monday.