Brendan Smith injury may leave Rangers thinner on defense

Rangers defenseman Brendan Smith sustained an upper-body injury late in the first period of Monday’s 3-1 win over the Penguins after colliding with Brandon Tanev.

He was slow to get up and immediately headed to the locker room, where he remained for the rest of the game. As a result, the Rangers were forced to play with just five defenseman for the next two periods.

“Smitty will be evaluated again [Tuesday], it’s an upper-body situation, so we’ll know more [Tuesday],” head coach David Quinn said.

With the team already down a defenseman after all-but-officially cutting ties with Tony DeAngelo, losing Smith puts the Rangers in an even tougher position. The team will have to look to its taxi squad to fill the void.

The Post’s Larry Brooks reported Monday that Nils Lundkvist, who was designated to the Swedish Hockey League’s Lulea HF for the 2020-21 season, is not available to join the organization before the season ends in Sweden. Additionally, Lundkvist must get a release from the International Hockey Federation that he will not play in the World Championship tournament in order to join the Rangers at that time. The 20-year-old would also need to sign a contract with the Rangers.

A trainer tends to Brendan Smith after an injury during the first period on Monday.

Anthony Bitetto, who had been on the team’s taxi squad to start the season, replaced DeAngelo in the lineup and made his Rangers debut in Monday’s win. If he remains on the official roster, the Rangers would likely turn to Libor Hajek to step in for Smith if need be.

“I thought Bitetto played well,” Quinn said. “Listen, when you get onto five D that early in the game, it’s not easy and especially for a guy who hasn’t played in a long time.”

Hajek has appeared in 33 games with the Rangers in the last two seasons, including a 28-game stint last year.

Kaapo Kakko was placed on the NHL’s COVID-19 Protocol List prior to Monday’s game and did not play.

General manager Jeff Gorton said the 19-year-old winger was “fine,” while Quinn said he expects him to be back “sooner [rather] than later.”

Kakko’s designation doesn’t necessarily mean he tested positive for the coronavirus. Players can be held out after being deemed as a high-risk close contact, as well as other precautionary reasons.

The Rangers aren’t required to share any additional reasoning for players’ absences, including how long they may be out. However, Kakko is a Type-1 diabetic, which could put him at greater risk for a severe case of COVID-19.

The Rangers recalled forward Johnny Brodzinski from the team’s AHL affiliate in Hartford to replace Kakko in the lineup.

Rangers prospect Vitaly Kravtsov was on the wrong end of a dirty hit during the second period of the KHL’s Traktor-Ak Bars game Monday and did not return.

There was no immediate update on the ninth-overall pick in 2018, but video shows him holding his head down on the ice for a prolonged period.

Kravtsov is in the midst of a stellar season for Traktor with 15 goals and 7 assists in 44 games.