Rangers' Michael Sauer set to return

NEW YORK, N.Y. -- Celebrating their home opener with a revamped Madison Square Garden Thursday, the New York Rangers also will unveil an upgrade to their defense.

Michael Sauer, who missed the last five games with a lingering preseason shoulder injury, said he will return to the lineup for the first time since Oct. 8.

"Most definitely. I'm ready to go. I got cleared so I'll be out there for sure," Sauer, 24, said after skating in the team's recently renovated arena for the first time Wednesday.

Sauer's return will provide a huge boost for an injury-addled defense that is without top blue-liner Marc Staal. Staal, who was placed on injured reserve earlier this month, has not played because of post-concussion headaches stemming from a hit by his brother Eric in a game last February.

"It's going to be huge for us," said second-year defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who has stepped up in Sauer's absence. "He's rock-solid back there and it's going to stabilize our back end."

Missing two of its top four defensemen, the team has been forced to cobble together a corps comprised of last year's mainstays -- Dan Girardi, McDonagh and Steve Eminger -- while also relying heavily on other players that were not consistent fixtures in the lineup last season.

Michael Del Zotto has played all seven games as has 20-year-old prospect Tim Erixon. Jeff Woywitka, claimed off waivers from Montreal while the team was in Europe, has played four.

Coach John Tortorella said he hopes Sauer's return will allow his fellow defensemen to shift back to roles that more adequately fit their abilities.

"It puts our guys -- some guys who were slotted in areas we didn't really want to put them in -- into areas that takes away a little bit of ice time from them and puts them in areas where they can succeed,"
he said.

Sauer, who suffered the shoulder injury in a preseason game against Philadelphia Sept. 26, played the first two games of the regular season but was then shelved for the next five.

"Right now, I feel great functionally -- I was out there taking slapshots -- it's just a matter of feel, but the shoulder's strong so that's what matters," he said.

Sauer had a standout-albeit-surprising rookie season and played in all but six games for the Rangers last season. The St. Cloud, Minn., native finished with three goals and 12 assists while playing with McDonagh as part of the team's second defensive pair.

"Michael came on strong last year, was a surprise and turned into one of our top four," Tortorella said. "So when you get one of your top four back, it certainly helps."

Katie Strang covers the NHL for ESPNNewYork.com.