Rangers' Blake Wheeler 'ready in any capacity' for East finals

May 19, 2024, 2:19 PM

TARRYTOWN, N.Y. -- New York Rangers forward Blake Wheeler, who has been out since February with a serious leg injury, says he is "an option and available" for their Eastern Conference finals series against the Florida Panthers.

Wheeler was injured Feb. 15, when his right leg bent at an unnatural angle and he was helped off the ice. It was an unnerving scene, one that had Rangers captain Jacob Trouba wondering whether the veteran forward had played his last NHL game.

The 37-year-old Wheeler was placed on injured reserve and ruled out for the regular season. His status for the Stanley Cup playoffs was uncertain at best. But Wheeler has been participating in practice over the past few weeks and shed his noncontact jersey Monday.

On Sunday, after an optional skate for the Rangers at their practice facility, Wheeler said he was available to play in the Eastern Conference finals.

"I think once you get rid of the red jersey, and the fact they take me off of the injured reserve, I think that's been my goal the whole time since I got hurt: to be an option and be available again. And that's where we're at," he said. "It's going to be in the coach's hands from there, but I'm ready in any capacity I can to help out."

Rangers coach Peter Laviolette said there were no restrictions on any of the players in practice and that Wheeler "is going to do everything he can to make himself a possibility" for the lineup.

Wheeler signed with the Rangers as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason after his contract was bought out by the Winnipeg Jets, with whom he spent the previous 12 seasons. He had 21 points (9 goals, 12 assists) in 54 games for New York, skating 12:43 per game.

His injury occurred right before the Rangers' Stadium Series game against the New York Islanders at MetLife Stadium and opened the door for rookie forward and cult hero Matt Rempe to enter the lineup.

Laviolette said there was no exact timeline for Wheeler to return but that the veteran forward "put himself on the good side of the road" with his hard work to get back to playing status.

Wheeler said he started on that road right after he was injured.

"I think you just have to, right?" he said. "I knew that the team was going to have to do some winning. I knew that there was going to have to be things that went in my favor to have a chance to come back, but if you have any other mindset, you got no chance."

He said the camaraderie within the team is the reason he worked so hard to play again this season.

"You sit on the couch watching these guys play ... I just want to be back with the guys, with the group on the ice with them, in any capacity I can," Wheeler said. "They're a heck of a group in here. I've had just a blast playing with these guys all year. And then certainly the run they've been on, just like I said, that's the motivation right there."

The Rangers open the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday night against the Panthers at Madison Square Garden, seeking their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 2014.