A crucial Rangers experiment is just getting started
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The past two losses have the Rangers’ playoff hopes hanging by a thread, which has been frayed even more by the Bruins’ current six-game winning streak.
As a result, an experimental period is on the horizon.
It began during Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the Flyers, when Alexis Lafreniere replaced Chris Kreider on the left wing of the top line. The 19-year-old Lafreniere skated alongside Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich, while Kreider found himself next to the youngsters on the third line with Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko.
The flip-flop wasn’t exactly an experiment, considering Lafreniere had 12 games next to Zibanejad and Buchnevich earlier this season – including nine in a row when Artemi Panarin was on his leave of absence. The real shuffling hasn’t begun just yet because the Rangers haven’t officially been eliminated from playoff contention, and head coach David Quinn has maintained he has “to answer to the room.”
But elevating the first-overall pick to the top line was a safe place for Quinn to start before bigger alterations to the lineup likely begin.
“I thought he made some plays,” Quinn said of Lafreniere, who consistently setup his linemates in 13:31 of ice time in the loss. “I liked his game [Thursday night].”
Considering Kreider is on a cold streak that has seen him post four points in the month of April, it made sense that he would be the one to drop down in the lineup. And with Colin Blackwell, currently on the right wing of the second line next to Panarin and Ryan Strome, cooling off from his inspired performances in the series against the Devils, he’ll likely be the next skater to be swapped out in favor of a young forward.
Vitali Kravtsov has started every game in the bottom six since his NHL debut earlier this month, with one spent on the third line and the other 10 on the fourth. Since Kakko has gotten more than a sample size of time on the second line, the coaching staff will likely want to see what the 21-year-old Kravtsov could do in that spot.
Even Chytil, who has centered the third line all season, could be due for some reps next to Panarin. The 21-year-old Czech has averaged just over 13 minutes a game this season and could see an increase if/when the playoffs are out of the picture, with the organization looking to evaluate what they have in him going forward.
Promising to further complicate the picture, the Rangers also have four recalls remaining. At least one more, if not all, will probably be used within the remaining eight games after Friday’s matchup with the Flyers.
The first in line likely will be Morgan Barron, the 6-foot-4 center out of Cornell, who has 18 points (10 goals, eight assists) in 19 games with Hartford this season.
“I think Morgan has played extremely well,” general manager Jeff Gorton said during his trade deadline press conference. “We’re hopeful to get him an opportunity or anybody that deserves it down there. We’ll keep him down there for now, see how he does, but he’s certainly opened our eyes with what he’s done, so we’re looking at that, along with some other players down there, too.”
There’s a possibility defenseman Tarmo Reunanen could get another look following his one-game cameo on March 15 when Adam Fox was in COVID-19 protocol after registering a false positive. And right winger Ty Ronning could get a call as well, after scoring nine goals in 13 games with the Wolf Pack.
The time to focus on next season may be closer than the Rangers would like, but it’s coming, as are the next steps toward that future.
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