Zibanejad in COVID Protocol as Rangers prepare for Sabres

Don’t expect to see Mika Zibanejad tomorrow night when the Rangers host the Sabres. The number one center is in COVID protocol. Colin Stephenson had the first update followed by Mollie Walker and Vince Mercogliano.

During practice, Greg McKegg was in the middle of line rushes for Zibanejad. That means he worked with Chris Kreider and Barclay Goodrow. That’s only for today. Things can change for Sunday’s game on Hockey Fights Cancer night at The Garden.

Let’s hope it does. Nothing against McKegg, who has filled in admirably when he’s been recalled. But he’s a support player who should be used in a secondary role. That’s how the Rangers have for the most part utilized the Keg Man. In a third or fourth line role.

Assuming Zibanejad is COVID positive, that means he won’t play. An obvious hit to the lineup. Especially the top six. Although he hasn’t scored like he needs to, his 14 points (4-10-14) rank fourth in team scoring. That trails Kreider and co-leaders Adam Fox and Artemi Panarin.

Ryan Strome is fifth with 10 points (2-8-10) thus far despite missing four games. He’s currently on a five-game point streak (1-5-6). Obviously, the second line pivot needs to continue to produce. Hopefully, he and Panarin can carry the offense along with the resurgent Kaapo Kakko (2-2-4 in last 3).

Without Zibanejad, there’s two suggestions. One would be to shift Goodrow to center. He can play first line with Kreider and another forward. Julien Gauthier comes to mind. However, Filip Chytil would be the obvious choice to move up to anchor the top line. He has looked good and it would be an opportunity to see what he can do.

They can have Kevin Rooney move up to the third line while keeping Alexis Lafreniere and Gauthier intact. That’s another idea. Have McKegg center Dryden Hunt and Ryan Reaves on the fourth line. But knowing Gerard Gallant, he’ll likely keep Rooney with his fourth line line mates to start tomorrow’s game. He can always adjust.

The good news is Zibanejad did travel back to New York. If it’s only precautionary, maybe they’ll get lucky. I doubt it. They’re facing Buffalo. Why take any chances?

The next game is on Thanksgiving Eve when they visit the Islanders at the brand new UBS Arena in Belmont. That opens tonight with the Isles hosting Calgary. That would give Zibanejad a few days to recover.

The Rangers will again travel to Boston for their traditional game against the Bruins on Black Friday. It was moved up to national TV. So, it’s a 1 PM start. The cool part is you get afternoon hockey on a Friday during a holiday. That’s always fun.

Even better, the Islanders visit MSG the following Sunday on Nov. 28. So, you get the best rivalry with a pair of games four days apart during holiday season. Exactly the way it should be. The final two meetings aren’t until April. Those could be significant.

For now, it looks like the Rangers will be without Zibanejad. Every team has to deal with injuries or COVID issues. It has hit Ottawa hard with today’s game canceled. Who knows when they’ll return to action. Pittsburgh had also played without coach Mike Sullivan recently.

It is what it is. Good teams find a way to overcome setbacks to win games. We’ll see what the Rangers are made of.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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